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Robots get friendly

Robots are acting more like people. Will our attachments eventually become too strong?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2004

Later this month Valerie will go on duty behind the reception desk at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Sciences. Besides doling out information and directions, she'll chat about her ever-changing personal life. If you introduce yourself, she'll remember you. If you ask about the weather, when she meets you again she may bring up the subject.

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Valerie, in case you haven't guessed, is a robot - one in a long line of increasingly sophisticated machines. Of course, computers and their physical manifestations, robots, are already deeply embedded in our lives. In some sense, ATM machines, self-service gas pumps, and TiVo video recorders serve as rudimentary robots.

Now, scientists are pushing to make these machines more sophisticated and humanlike, both in appearance (see story below) and intelligence. Hollywood visions of intelligent, self-conscious machines - R2D2 of "Star Wars" or David, the robot child in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" - remain a distant dream. But robots are expected someday to become tireless service workers at fast-food restaurants, hotel front desks, and so on, laboring cheerily 24/7. They'll also be infinitely patient teachers as well as companions for the lonely.

Some experts worry that attachments may become too strong (see story, page 18), subjecting people to manipulation by clever programmers or unnatural reliance on machines for companionship. But those working in the field agree on one thing: The way we communicate with an onscreen face (sometimes called a "chatbot") or a fully released robot is becoming friendlier and friendlier - even fun.

"This is going to be a very important area for human-computer interaction - having systems that can respond in a more social way and more intuitive fashion," says Reid Simmons, a professor at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. "It makes the interaction more enjoyable if they have a personality." If a robot cart is delivering office mail, he says, it'd be great if once in a while it cracked a joke or gave you a friendly "hi."

"Pleasure is important," adds Randy Pausch, codirector of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. Computing, he says, used to be about speed and low error rates, what he calls "Industrial Revolution thinking." But if companies strive to make their workers and customers comfortable in other ways, why not in the way they encounter computers?

"If I'm going to access information, what are ways that I can do that that will be more pleasurable?" he says.

A robot with highs and lows

Valerie, a talking head displayed on a computer screen, aims to be just such a pleasant experience. The school's drama department has created a "backstory" for Valerie, tales of her personal relationships, her highs and lows, that she'll share with passersby if they ask. Her storyline will be constantly updated in an effort to get people to form a relationship with her.

In early testing, Professor Simmons and his colleagues have quickly seen Valerie's limitations. If someone asks, "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" she'll look in her database and say she can't find it, he says. "There's a lot of cultural knowledge that she obviously doesn't have. If somebody is really trying to push the system, it typically doesn't have to get pushed very far before it breaks," Simmons says, meaning she has to reply, "I don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you ask me what I do know about?"

Studies have shown that expectations are higher for such virtual people than, say, a faceless search engine like Google. If it fails to return useful information, humans assume that they're at fault and have entered the wrong information. But if a human-like face answers with a non sequitur, people think it's dumb. Television and movies depicting futurist, human-like robots also may push some people's expectations sky high.

Professor Pausch says we should think of virtual humans as akin to Jethro Bodine on the old "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show. With Jethro, "you realize you're not dealing with something that is very smart," in common-sense ways, he says. Though Jethro is kindhearted, "and he will help me in any way he can," he must be asked for his help in careful, simple ways that he can understand.

Virtual people are like that, Pausch says, with one huge difference. "Valerie can also do superhuman things," like never forgetting anything and being able to immediately access the Internet and other databases to find answers to questions.

Peter Plantec, author of "Virtual Humans: Creating the Illusion of Personality," sees virtual humans as just now on the cusp of being truly useful. He's convinced that they are going to play a huge role as teachers.

"The traditional way of teaching is on the way out," says Mr. Plantec, whose book encourages people to create their own virtual people on the Internet using off-the-shelf software. The more virtual humans that are built, the more we'll discover their potential, he reasons.