Alec Warren taught himself to build robots, and, someday, he’ll be teaching the robots how to teach themselves.
The Harrisburg Academy senior, despite a rigorous schedule of regular classes, has devoted much of his high school career to extracurricular work in robotics and machine learning, with the ultimate goal of helping to develop self-driving cars.
But he started from scratch. Along with some friends, Warren started Harrisburg Academy’s robotics club, diving into VEX Robotics, a standardized interscholastic program and competition, with little prior knowledge.
“When we first started out, we had no idea how to communicate our ideas. We were so bad,” Warren said. “We didn’t know how to put two pieces of metal together. It was all trial and error.”
While the learning curve was steep, Warren did have one leg up — his experience with computer programming. He had started designing basic websites in middle school, and wrote his first real computer algorithm in ninth grade, Warren said. He soon became the designated programming person on the robotics team.
“Programming robots is a whole different animal. You get to see your code come to life,” Warren said. “It’s almost like watching a child grow up.”
As Warren’s programming skills advanced, so did his scale of thinking. Warren has always had an interest in cars — petrol-powered and electric.
“Self-driving cars are basically just big robots,” Warren said.
He rapidly became interested in the details of the programming needed to make them work. Warren took an online course to master the basics, which involved writing machine-imaging code that would allow a driverless car to deduce stoplight colors.
Warren eventually got his program to determine color with 99.8 percent accuracy, he said.
This led into Warren’s biggest project to date: creating a simulation in which a network of only driverless cars is able to operate without physical traffic signals.
“The whole idea is that the cars intercommunicate and send their data to each other so they can predict and avoid collisions,” Warren said.
The simulation, which Warren estimated he spent 200 hours programming, won him the Capital Area Science and Engineering Fair and a slot at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh.
It’s a concept that Warren intends to pursue in college, he’s already received acceptance from a few schools, but is still waiting to hear from some others before he makes a decision. He expects to go for a degree in computer science and/or electrical engineering.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see how this pans out with America’s car culture,” Warren said.
While Americans love driving cars, they may love the convenience and relief of self-piloting vehicles better, Warren said. A single self-driving, ride-sharing car could take up to 11 personal vehicles off the road once the technology is perfected, a huge benefit to the nation’s infrastructure and a huge step in reducing emissions, Warren said.
One model, which Warren was particularly interested in, would involve car owners letting their self-driving cars go pick up other people when the owner isn’t using them.
“It’ll unclog everything because they’re so much more efficient,” Warren said. “You could still own a car and make money off of it when you’re not using it.”
Warren’s development of Harrisburg Academy’s robotics team will continue, he hopes, after he graduates. He and the team have put on workshops and summer camps for younger students, which also serve to raise money for more VEX parts and software.
Warren also stresses the need to not just be a one-track student, posting strong grades in literature and the social sciences as well. He’s also an avid member of Harrisburg Academy’s soccer and swimming teams.
“I hesitate to say I enjoy working out, but it keeps me motivated,” Warren said. “When I’m not doing anything athletic I get into a slump.”