Dr. Nikolopoulos receives $100,000 for research in artificial intelligence

February 13, 2013

By Emily Laidley ‘13

Dr. Chris Nikolopoulos, professor of computer science, will be working with a team of undergraduate and graduate students to find ways artificial intelligence can optimize Caterpillar’s supply chain networks. 

The manufacturing giant is asking Dr. Nikolopoulos to find the best possible route for their goods to travel. In Caterpillar’s supply chain, the route by which goods travel from the manufacturer to the customer, products can pass through thousands of different routes, from factories to warehouses to customers, utilizing different transportation methods, everything from trucks, planes or ships.

The “best” route for the company will be the one that balances Caterpillar’s need to deliver goods on time, keep costs low and maintain resiliency throughout the entire supply chain.

"In addition to profit, we optimize in other terms,” Dr. Nikolopoulos said, “because profit is short term. If it takes six months for the goods to travel on the most inexpensive route, the service level will go down and the company will lose customers.”

Part of the grant will also be supporting the continuation of Dr. Nikolopoulos’ international research on demand strategy.

For this project, Dr. Nikolopoulos has handpicked some of his best graduate and undergraduate students to assist him.

“I am really proud of the quality of our students at Bradley and their excellent work,” he said. “This is manifested by their ability to contribute to difficult research problems. Most of my students don’t work on these projects for the pay or for the resume building alone; they do it because they like it and they like to think and be creative.”

He said the research project is also an excellent supplement to what students do and learn in class.

“In classes, they are taught exactly how to do what is expected of them,” he added. “In research, you have to draw on your experiences and creativity to solve problems no one has successfully solved before.”

In order to find the optimal route for Caterpillar’s goods, Dr. Nikolopoulos and his assistants will use artificial intelligence techniques such as heuristic tree search, genetic algorithms and ant colony optimization techniques.

Genetic algorithms and ant colony optimization techniques are based on phenomena in nature and use artificial intelligence to mimic the way species evolve into the optimal organisms for their environments. Dr. Nikolopoulos’s research will have these programs essentially evolving until they find the best possible way to ship products.

Ant colony optimization techniques use artificial intelligence to find solutions in much the same way an ant colony finds food. Ants fan out randomly from the colony in search of food until one discovers a source and attracts the rest of the colony to it. The ants then work together to bring the food home.

In the digital world, the ant colony technique randomly searches for solutions and, when one is found, the program signals its success. This then triggers the rest of the program to continue working on this solution to strengthen and improve its efficiency.