Making Robots More Like Us (Arvin Agah's research discussed)

New York,New York (03-06-2003)

From The New York Times
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

CALL it crazy, but Monica Nicolescu has taken a robot under her wing. At a robotics laboratory at the University of Southern California, she puts the two-wheeled machine through its paces, leading it through a maze of short plastic pillars to an orange box on the floor. It follows her around the lab, observing and reproducing her every step.

Through this high-tech game of monkey-see, monkey-do, Ms. Nicolescu and her colleagues train robots to perform simple jobs like picking up the box. But their goal, and that of other robotics researchers, is to build robots that will be capable of doing not only tasks they have been programmed for, but new and more complicated ones as well.

Despite advances in artificial intelligence, sensors and mechanical devices, researchers are still a long way from realizing the guiding vision of robotics: machines that can move and work like humans, learn new tasks with little or no training, and react with sensitivity to the changing moods of their mortal masters.

Instead, most robots remain human-dependent machines that can perform only specialized tasks, like welding parts in a factory, searching through the rubble of a collapsed building or vacuuming a living room. Few display what could be considered sensitivity to people, and those that do tend to be toys, like Sony's Aibo pet, that serve only to entertain.

Robotics researchers are realizing that the journey to more autonomous, adaptable robots will require more than just improvements in mechanical, sensory and computing capabilities. Equally important, they say, is improving the way people and robots interact: after all, they say, that may be how robots will learn, and to be truly useful, robots must be acceptable to people.

"Now that robots are beginning to come into our world, it's time to look beyond engineering and ask how people are going to react to them," said Arvin Agah, a robotics researcher at the University of Kansas.

Not all researchers believe that an all-purpose humanoid robot is a realistic goal, at least in the short term.

"I don't doubt that we will see more special-purpose machines such as robotic lawn mowers and car washers," said George Beckey, another robotics researcher at U.S.C. "But I do not expect the same robot to be able to vacuum the home and make coffee and take the dog for a walk."

Nonetheless, researchers at robotics labs around the world are studying the way people and robots interact. If people are to teach machines, they ask, what would be the best way? And if machines are to serve people, washing dishes and sending faxes, what kind of robotic behavior will people be comfortable with? How should the robots appear?

Some scientists believe that making robots seem human will smooth interaction. Shuji Hashimoto, a robotics engineer at Waseda University in Tokyo, envisions a world in which humans and humanoid robots will interact seamlessly, teaming up to carry out domestic and office tasks.

"Since personal robots will have to operate in environments designed for humans, they will be better off functionally with a form like the human body," Dr. Hashimoto said. "And they will need to communicate with users using natural language, gestures and facial expressions."

The question for Ms. Nicolescu, a graduate student, and her adviser, Maja Mataric, isn't what the robots should look like but how they should relate as students to their human teachers. The machine in their experiments is programmed with basic skills like picking up and dropping an object, and is programmed to follow the trainer and to map each action in a demonstration of its abilities. It can then repeat the task by generating a corresponding string of actions.

But in its training, the robot moves beyond simple imitation. Once the robot has learned a task, it is able to perform it even under different circumstances.

"In a task that involves making photocopies, the robot can get to the copy machine even if there's a stack of boxes in the way, or if the door to the copy room is closed," Ms. Nicolescu said.

The training of robots could require the kind of patience that adults reserve for infants. But while babies can elicit pleasant emotions, making interaction with them rewarding, robots generally do not.

Some researchers suggest that if robots were more like babies, people would want to care for them, which would allow for spontaneous, parent-like training.

Driven by that goal, Cynthia Breazeal and her colleagues at M.I.T.'s Artificial Intelligence Lab have spent countless hours talking to Kismet, a robot that is programmed to recognize basic emotions in a human voice and can respond through mechanically driven movements of its eyes and mouth.

For years, the researchers have treated Kismet as if it were a baby, at times shaking a stuffed toy in front of it or speaking lovingly to it. Last year, Dr. Breazeal and a colleague reported that Kismet could tell from the tone of an instructor's voice whether it was being praised, scolded or comforted. By refining Kismet's responses, the researchers hope to enable it to develop new behaviors through social interaction.

"When people interact with a young child, they have a lot of prosody in their voice, exaggerate their facial expressions, slow down their gestures, all to make it easy for the child to understand them," Dr. Breazeal said. "If we are willing to do this for infants and even pets, there's no reason why we would not do the same for robots that have emotional appeal."

Beyond mastering some social skills and the developing the ability to learn tasks, robotic assistants would need to move in ways acceptable to users. Dr. Agah at the University of Kansas has studied people's psychological responses to a mobile robot. Working with a colleague, he asked 40 subjects how comfortable they felt in different situations around a cylindrical robot that was about a foot tall and moved on wheels.

The researchers found that most subjects preferred that the robot move at a slower speed than normal walking pace. When the robot was mounted with a humanoid body, subjects wanted it to stay at a distance from them; in that form, the robot seemed to invade the subjects' personal space by coming too close to their faces.

"These observations would not have been relevant back in the old days when robots were inside a cage painting cars in Detroit," Dr. Agah said. "Now they may be central to many aspects of robot design."

At the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, researchers have tried to tackle the issue of distance, both physical and emotional. Led by Kerstin S. Eklundh, the researchers have built a prototype of a robot that can accomplish office tasks. Users can communicate with it by speaking to it or by clicking on a graphical interface on a computer. The researchers believed that having both modes of interaction would be important in an office, where workers might be too deeply immersed in other tasks to speak to a robot.

The office assistant is a doll on a mobile platform. It has no facial features but can make simple head and arm movements.

Dr. Eklundh and her colleagues chose its design to give users the sense that they were working with a reliable transportation agent. In one interaction they have programmed, a user can ask the robot to bring coffee from the kitchen. The doll tilts its head in a gesture of attention. To express its understanding of the command, the robot repeats the command as a question: "Get coffee from the kitchen?" "Yes, please," the user answers. The robot responds with "Going to get coffee from the kitchen!" and sets off. "The important thing is for the robot to give a clear indication about where it is headed and what it's going to do next," Dr. Eklundh said.

As researchers plug away, trying to breathe human characteristics into circuits and metal, they parade the best of the humanoid robots before museum visitors and television cameras. Honda's Asimo, a robot that resembles an astronaut and can walk up and down stairs, does a little work as well. At the automaker's Tokyo headquarters, Asimo sometimes guides visitors to a conference room. "People really enjoy this," a company representative said. "The only problem is that when Asimo leaves the room, guests tend to follow it to see what it's going to do next."

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