Sophomores emerge victorious in the third annual student computational challenge
In previous years, students have developed models and algorithms for providing medical aid to the maximum number of victims stranded by a hurricane striking the city of Cambridge, and developed fast algorithms to compete against one another in a virtual foosball arena.
This year, IACS lecturer Cris Cecka designed a mind-bending two-player game called "Stack 'Em" specifically for the challenge. Students had just 48 hours to develop their best Artificial Intelligence solutions for the game before competing head to head in a round robin tournament.
The student teams were presented with a two-dimensional "wall" of "bricks" which must be ordered in a particular way. The key challenge in this turn-based game is to prevent the opposing team from ordering their own wall while completing your own wall. Philip Mocz (PhD Astronomy) observed, "Designing a winning strategy that was able to overcome, or at least minimize the negative effects of the random component of the game, was the most difficult aspect of the challenge."
While the game is relatively simple, the teams can approached it with a broad range of strategies -- and they did. In just 48 hours, they developed machine learning algorithms, applied stochastic analysis, devised evaluation heuristics, and evolved game players.
In the first round of the tournament, three teams emerged as the strongest competitors: a freshman trio (Eric Lu, Max Nye, and Jessica Xu), a sophomore duo (Colin Lu and Rebecca Chen), and a grad student team (Philip Mocz, Jenna Wan Jun Yang, and Xiang Li). The finals were incredibly close, but the sophomore team carried the day, and the grad student team edged out the freshmen to claim second place.
Colin Lu, a sophomore Mathematics concentrator, and Rebecca Chen, a sophomore Computer Science concentrator, each received an Xbox One for their first place performance. The second place team, Xiang Li (CSE SM), Philip Mocz (PhD Astronomy), and Jenna Wan Jun Yang (CSE SM), received external solid state drives.
Lu's advice for next year's teams? "Don't underestimate seemingly simple strategies, and work independently of your team initially so that you can all try different things."
Mocz agreed. "Sometimes simple approaches that can be generalized and built upon are the best," he said.
Microsoft sponsored the challenge this year, providing refreshments to the student competitors and prizes to the winners. Dean Cherry Murray and Ce Liu from Microsoft Research New England presented the awards to the students during the third annual symposium on the Future of Computation in Science and Engineering Weathering the Data Storm: The Promise and Challenges of Data Science on January 24, 2014.