As you sit at a table in your research lab, bewildered by a technical glitch, you glance over at your colleague. He turns his head in your direction. You tilt your head and shoot him a puzzled look. He nods back and offers a slight smirk. While no words were exchanged, you feel as if the two of you are on the same page. You're connected by the time and effort you both have given to this project. There's one problem, though. Your colleague isn't a scientist or a lab assistant. In fact, he isn't hu-man at all. He's a robot that can engage in human-like interaction.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge are building just such a robot—one that can socialize with people. The prototype is a robotic head capable of human-like interaction in the form of myriad facial expressions, head positions, and tones of voice. According to project leader Cynthia Breazeal, the research aims to build a socially intelligent machine that learns through social interaction.
Research began at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1997. Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., the work is based upon premises of child-developmental psychology. The team set out to create a robot that begins much like a child, in a primitive and needy condition. A patient caretaker then aids the robot in its ongoing intellectual and "emotional" development.
The prototype is named Kismet (see the figure). It's controlled by 15 computers running process software programs that let it perceive its environment, analyze collected observations, and react appropriately. Its physical features, including blue eyes, lips, ears, and eyebrows, are designed to elicit a known caregiving response from human adults. The researchers incorporated concepts of cartoon animation along with developmental psychology premises to make Kismet as lifelike as possible.
Kismet's eyes are sensors. It can react to a sensed stimulus through head movements or communication of emotion-like processes, including happiness, fear, and disgust. The human caretaker communicates with the robot through microphones located in Kismet's ears. These built-in microphones may be used for sound localization in the future.
According to Breazeal, the ro-bot's features, be-haviors, and "emotions" act jointly so it can interact with humans. For example, an object may come too close to Kismet, blocking the robot's ability to distinguish it. In this case, Kismet backs away. While the behavior itself enables the robot to see more clearly by increasing the distance between itself and the object, the MIT team is truly interested in the social implication of this response. This withdrawal should prompt a human to back away from the robot. Kismet and the human caretaker, then, achieve human-like interaction.
The team is teaching Kismet how to use its voice to achieve desired results, much like how children must use vocal and physical behaviors to get their needs fulfilled. Breazeal believes the robot will "learn" by trial and error. When met with poor results upon a certain request, Kismet will "remember" its mistakes. The robot will then make incremental improvements in its ability to verbally evoke desired actions from humans.
The MIT team plans to further its research by outfitting Kismet with updated sensors and software. The overall goal is to develop a robotic creature that learns and develops through continual interaction with humans. For more information on this research project, visit www.mit.edu.