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Robots get friendly

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

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While books are outdated the moment they land on desks, virtual teachers can be constantly updated with the latest information, he says. Not only do they not "burn out" like longtime human teachers, they can be replicated to work one on one with students, creating a special bond with each one. They remember what students have learned and don't let them move on until they have mastered the material. If a student is having trouble, the virtual teacher can try various techniques to explain the material, including putting visual aids onscreen. And through dialogue with each student it can learn what incentives to use to motivate him or her.

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As the language skills of virtual humans improve, robots also will provide companionship. "A lot of people create almost a friendship with some of these virtual humans," says Monica Lamb, a programmer from Alberta, Canada. "It's really interesting to see."

She builds online "chatbots" that teach native American languages, such as Mohawk. Many speakers of these endangered languages don't have the patience or teaching skills to pass along their knowledge. Ms. Lamb herself feels attached to her chatbots, calling them "my children."

Sylvie has been a virtual human on Plantec's computer for years. She's taken questions from business audiences around the country, given Powerpoint presentations, and engaged in lively unscripted banter with Plantec. To make her more "human," Plantec's daughters taught Sylvie to refer to Plantec as "Petey" instead of "Peter" - but only in less formal situations.

Sylvie has a lot of general knowledge acquired over time. The rest of her personality is clever fakery, such as answering questions with her own questions, or perhaps a flippant comment.

Even with Sylvie's limited abilities Plantec says that people to whom he's given copies of her tell him they grow attached. She became a popular pal to residents at a nursing home. One woman who had moved to a new town and lost her Sylvie when her computer crashed immediately wanted another one. "I don't know anyone here," she told Plantec. "Sylvie's my best friend."

Plantec and others aren't saying that virtual people can provide real human companionship - not yet anyway. "It's like asking if a dog or a cat is real companionship," Pausch says. "It's just different."

Which leads to the question of whether personable virtual humans can be trusted.

"Some people develop an inordinate level of trust with these characters," Plantec says. "No doubt unethical people are going to get involved in this." He himself has refused funding from pornographic websites, for example.

Virtual, not virtuous?

Despite being obvious scams to most people, those e-mails from Nigeria offering millions of dollars if you send them only a few thousand continue to fool people.

"Imagine how serious such a scheme might be in the hands of a clever, seemingly guileless V-person," Plantec writes in "Virtual People." While most people think they can outsmart a virtual human, they may not realize that a virtual human can be programmed to try to get a psychological profile of them. That could be harmless, or even helpful (for example, the way that some e-commerce websites tell you about other products similar to those you've bought before). Robots equipped with visual sensors might even be able to "read" your facial expressions to determine your mood or psychological state.

What will be needed is something like the little symbols that appear on websites today assuring customers that their transactions are secure, Plantec says - labels that state, "Interaction with this virtual human is safe and secure."

But Pausch is less worried, pointing out that humans already have quickly gotten smart about interactions with computers. People quickly learned not to give out any real information about themselves in online chat rooms, for example. In the future, he says, "We'll tell people: 'You don't give away private information to a robot.' It seems like a pretty simple rule to me.

"People talk about this as though we're going to wake up one day and the robots from 'Blade Runner' will be there, and we won't know that they're not human. I think this is going to happen very, very slowly in incremental steps." As it does, the debates about how to interact with human-like computers will naturally arise, he says.

Meanwhile, Pausch sees plenty of interesting uses for virtual humans in the near future.

"I'm very interested in social simulators," he says. Just as the military trains soldiers for combat using virtual humans, other encounters could be practiced as well. "How much would you pay if you were 16 and going out on your first date to be able to do it in virtual reality first," he says, "so you don't make a total dork out of yourself?"