Tag Archives: machine learning

Lean, Mean, Bioinformatics Machine

Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. – Alan Turing

This week we have a PhD student from the College of Engineering and advised by Dr. Maude David in Microbiology, Nima Azbijari, to discuss how he uses machine learning to better understand biology. Before we dig in to the research, let’s dig into what exactly machine learning is, and how it differs from artificial intelligence (AI). Both AI and machine learning learn patterns from data they are fed, but the difference is that AI is typically developed to be interacted with and make decisions in real time. If you’ve ever lost a game of chess to a computer, that was AI playing against you. But don’t worry, even the world’s champion at an even more complex game, Go, was beaten by AI. AI utilizes machine learning, but not all machine learning is AI. Kind of like how a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. The goal of machine learning is to use data to improve at tasks using data it is fed.

So how exactly does a machine, one of the least biological things on this planet, help us understand biology? 

Ten years ago it was big news that a computer was able to recognize images of cats, but now photo recognition is quite common. Similarly, Nima uses machine learning with large sets of genomic (genes/DNA), proteomic (proteins), and even gut microbiomic data (symbiotic microbes in the digestive track) to then see if the computer can predict varying patient outcomes. By using computational power, larger data sets and the relationships between the varying kinds of data can be analyzed more quickly. This is great for both understanding the biological world in which we live, and also for the potential future of patient care. 

How exactly do you teach an old machine a new trick?

First, it’s important to note that he’s using a machine, not magic, and it can be massively time consuming (even for a computer) to do any kind of analysis on every element of a massive set. Potentially millions of computations, or even more. So to isolate only the data that matters, Nima uses graph neural networks to extrapolate the important pieces. Imagine if you had a data set about your home, and you counted both the number of windows and the number of blinds and found that they were the same. Then you might conclude that you only need to count windows, and that counting blinds doesn’t tell you anything new. The same idea works with reducing data into only the components that add meaning. 

The phrase ‘neural network’ can invoke imagery of a massive computer-brain made of wires, but what does this neural network look like, exactly? The 1999 movie The Matrix borrowed its name from a mathematical object which contains columns and rows of data, much like the iconic green columns of data from the movie posters. These matrices are useful for storing and computing data sets since they can be arranged much like an excel sheet, with columns for each patient and rows for each type of recorded data. He (or the computer?) can then work with that matrix to develop this neural network graph. Then, the neural network determines which data is relevant and can also illustrate connections between the different pieces of data. Much like how you might be connected to friends, coworkers, and family on a social network, except in this case, each profile is a compound or molecule and the connections can be any kind of relationship, such as a common reaction between the pair. However, unlike a social network, no one cares how many degrees from Kevin Bacon they are. The goal here isn’t to connect one molecule to another but to instead identify unknown relationships. Perhaps that makes it more like 23 and Me than Facebook.


Nima is using machine learning to discover previously unknown relationships between various kinds of human biological data such as genes and the gut microbiome. Now, that’s a machine you don’t need to rage against.

Excited to learn more about machine learning?
Us too. Be sure to listen live on Sunday November 13th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it. And if you want to stay up to date on Nima’s research, you can follow them on Twitter.

Learning without a brain

Instructions for how to win a soccer game:

Score more goals than your opponent.

Sounds simple, but these instructions don’t begin to explain the complexity of soccer and are useless without knowledge of the rules of soccer or how a “goal” is “scored.” Cataloging the numerous variables and situations to win at soccer is impossible and even having all that information will not guarantee a win. Soccer takes teamwork and practice.

Researchers in robotics are trying to figure out how to make a robot learn behaviors in games such as soccer, which require collaborative and/or competitive behaviors.

How then would you teach a group of robots to play soccer? Robots don’t have “bodies,” and instructions based on human body movement are irrelevant. Robots can’t watch a game and later try some fancy footwork. Robots can’t understand English unless they are designed to. How would the robots communicate with each other on the field? If a robot team did win a soccer game, how would they know?

Multiple robot systems are already a reality in automated warehouses.

Although this is merely an illustrative example, these are the types of challenges encountered by folks working to design robots to accomplish specific tasks. The main tool for teaching a robot to do anything is machine learning. With machine learning, a roboticist can give a robot limited instructions for a task, the robot can attempt a task many times, and the roboticist can reward the robot when the task is performed successfully. This allows the robot to learn how to successfully accomplish the task and use that experience to further improve. In our soccer example, the robot team is rewarded when they score a goal, and they can get better at scoring goals and winning games.

Programming machines to automatically learn collaborative skills is very hard because the outcome depends on not only what one robot did, but what all other robots did; thus it is hard to learn who contributed the most and in what way.

Our guest this week, Yathartha Tuladhar, a PhD student studying Robotics in the College of Engineering, is focused on improving multi-robot coordination. He is investigating both how to effectively reward robots and how robot-to-robot communication can increase success. Fun fact: robots don’t use human language communication. Roboticists define a limited vocabulary of numbers or letters that can become words and allow the robots to learn their own language. Not even the roboticist will be able to decode the communication!


Human-Robot collaborative teams will play a crucial role in the future of search and rescue.

Yathartha is from Nepal and became interested in electrical engineering as a career that would aid infrastructure development in his country. After getting a scholarship to study electrical engineering in the US at University of Texas Arlington, he learned that electrical engineering is more than developing networks and helping buildings run on electricity. He found electrical engineering is about discovery, creation, trial, and error. Ultimately, it was an experience volunteering in a robotics lab as an undergraduate that led him to where he is today.

Tune in on Sunday at 7pm and be ready for some mind-blowing information about robots and machine learning. Listen locally to 88.7FM, stream the show live, or check out our podcast.

How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb?

As technology continues to improve over the coming years, we are beginning to see increased integration of robotics into our daily lives. Imagine if these robots were capable of receiving general instructions regarding a task, and they were able to learn, work, and communicate as a team to complete that task with no additional guidance. Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Connor Yates a Robotics PhD student in the College of Engineering, studies artificial intelligence and machine learning and wants to make the above hypothetical scenario a reality. Connor and other members of the Autonomous Agents and Distributed Intelligence Laboratory are keenly interested in distributed reinforcement learning, optimization, and control in large complex robotics systems. Applications of this include multi-robot coordination, mobile robot navigation, transportation systems, and intelligent energy management.

Connor Yates.

A long time Beaver and native Oregonian, Connor grew up on the eastern side of the state. His father was a botanist, which naturally translated to a lot of time spent in the woods during his childhood. This, however, did not deter his aspirations of becoming a mechanical engineer building rockets for NASA. Fast forward to his first term of undergraduate here at Oregon State University—while taking his first mechanical engineering course, he realized rocket science wasn’t the academic field he wanted to pursue. After taking numerous different courses, one piqued his interest, computer science. He then went on to flourish in the computer science program eventually meeting his current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kagan Tumer. Connor worked with Dr. Tumer for two of his undergraduate years, and completed his undergraduate honors thesis investigating the improvement to gauge the intent of multiple robots working together in one system.

Connor taking in a view at Glacier National Park 2017.

Currently, Connor is working on improving the ability for machines to learn by implementing a reward system; think of a “good robot” and “bad robot” system. Using computer simulations, a robot can be assigned a general task. Robots usually begin learning a task with many failed attempts, but through the reward system, good behaviors can be enforced and behaviors that do not relate to the assigned task can be discouraged. Over thousands of trials, the robot eventually learns what to do and completes the task. Simple, right? However, this becomes incredibly more complex when a team of robots are assigned to learn a task. Connor focuses on rewarding not just successful completion an assigned task, but also progress toward completing the task. For example, say you have a table that requires six robots to move. When two robots attempt the task and fail, rather than just view it as a failed task, robots are capable of learning that two robots are not enough and recruit more robots until successful completion of the task. This is seen as a step wise progression toward success rather than an all or nothing type situation. It is Connor’s hope that one day in the future a robot team could not only complete a task but also report reasons why a decision was made to complete an assigned task.

In Connor’s free time he enjoys getting involved in the many PAC courses that are offered here at Oregon State University, getting outside, and trying to teach his household robot how to bring him a beer from the fridge.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 PM Sunday evening to hear more about Connor and his research on artificial intelligence, or stream the program live.