Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Teaching robots to be (more) human

Wired reports: [edited]

Nexi (above right) can blink, shrug and raise an eyebrow. He can walk about, shake hands and tell if you're angry or surprised. His plastic skin can sense human touch; a camera and infrared system allow him to see in 3D; and he can carry objects up to 4.5kg.

And he's just one of the 32 robots created in Cynthia Breazeal's lab. Now, the director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT is letting them loose. "If we're going to make personal robots a reality, we need to get them out into the wild and see what happens," says the 43-year-old. "We're looking at small, robust, reasonably inexpensive robots that use smartphone technology, and trying to build a cloud-computing field lab to see how people interact with them."

This next generation is intended for use as learning companions for children -- robust, stretchy and squashy, they don't have an official name yet but are referred to as "Tofu". Breazeal is also teaching the droids the rules of human behaviour by crowdsourcing: "If they only interact with a few people, the robots don't get the life experience we take for granted." So she created an online game called Mars Escape, where players and droids collaborate.

The lessons learned are uploaded to a robot that sits in the Boston Museum of Science, talking to visitors. "It's about building a memory to use to interact with new people," she says. Breazeal sees applications in healthcare and education, but her goal is a real-world R2D2 and C-3PO: "They inspired me. They had emotions, they were friends with people. They're the kind of robot I'm trying to achieve."

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