Robots Get Real

Lauren Monsen

In science fiction, robots are sometimes indistinguishable from people, but until recently, robots used by industry, the military or law enforcement have been designed to look like machines and to complete highly specific, mechanical tasks.

Enter researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who are creating robots with personalities.

Carnegie Mellon’s robotics program is ranked No. 1 by U.S. News & World Report. The U.S. ranks alongside Japan and the European Union as a world leader in robotics, according to the National Science Foundation.

Valerie, Tank, Athina and Victor — among the world’s first story-telling robots — are the result of an interdisciplinary project between the university’s School of Drama and its Robotics Institute.

Professor Anne Mundell works with drama students to create each robot’s persona, and Professor Reid Simmons helps robotics students develop the software to make robots interact with humans. The project grew out of conversations about how technology affects people’s day-to-day lives. Intrigued by the possibilities of marrying art to technology, the professors came up with the idea of “social robots,” which would converse while performing tasks.

The robots are entertaining, but their purpose is serious. The robots provide information — directions, weather reports and so forth — but their quirky personalities encourage people to spend longer periods of time interacting with them. And that is a breakthrough. As robots assume a greater role in health care (assisting the elderly with their medications, for example), it will be important for them to be approachable.

The students’ first robot collaboration produced Valerie, a “roboceptionist” who today is used for classroom demos. Initially installed in the computer science building, she answered visitors’ and callers’ questions while also gossiping (at times, complaining about her mother’s attempts to run her love life).

Valerie’s successor, Tank, took over as roboceptionist in 2005, “freeing Valerie to pursue her singing vocation,” said Mundell, who is obviously fond of her students’ creations.

Tank, conceived as a rugged military veteran, has enjoyed a longer tenure as department roboceptionist (although his eventual replacement, Miranda, is in the works). He has his own unique personality; for instance, he gets cranky if visitors are rude to him.

The students developed the serialized stories told by these robots. Visitors type questions into a keyboard, and the robots respond with computer-generated speech. “As you interact with the robots, their stories evolve. It’s like a running soap opera,” Mundell said.

Victor has the persona of an adolescent prodigy attending the university on a Scrabble [board game] scholarship. Designed to play against human opponents, Victor talks like a moody teenager. Installed in a student lounge, he taunts students by citing things that robots can do better than humans.

The robots have facial expressions, courtesy of software devised by Simmons, and they tilt their heads and move their eyes. They are equipped with motion sensors that detect where people are. The collaborators have learned from successive creations; newer robots interact more naturally. Victor has “an emotional response spectrum, so he can respond appropriately when things happen during the course of a Scrabble game,” said Mundell.

For her, social robots, despite their real-world applications, are “story-telling in a new format,” she said.

Top to bottom: Valerie, Victor and Tank

My singing … makes me happy. Everyone else can go auto-delete themselves. – Valerie

Some people say I have a chip on my shoulder. Actually, I have a chip IN my shoulder. – Victor

Computers have feelings, too. – Tank


To view a video of Valerie the robot, scan the QR code with your phone, or point your browser here:

Who’s Afraid of Robots?

An interview with Matthew Mason, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University

Q: Science fiction makes us believe that once robots reach comparable intelligence to humans, they could rise up. Are they coming to get us?

Matthew Mason: Not in the near future. Maybe 500 years from now. I wish we’d been so successful in researching artificial intelligence and developing robots that it was a realistic fear (laughs).

Q: What can today’s robots do or not do?

MM: All things that are easy for us are hard for robots, and all things that are hard for us are easy for robots. The intellectual challenges related to the chess game were addressed quite successfully by artificial intelligence — computers won against human competitors. Yet if you want a robot to move chess pieces on the board, it’s tough. Also, look at how humans and robots deal with uncertainty. Humans use their senses, but also common-sense physics. When they encounter obstacles, they can do a quick analysis to solve the problem. Robots have a hard time dealing with such obstacles.

Q: Is there a critical challenge to making robots more versatile?

MM: Generally, researchers are looking at different mechanisms, structures and materials that can advance robotics. They work on controls, perception, intelligence and machine learning. I work in manipulation, which involves motion planning and control, including how robots use their “hands.” Today, we have robots with simple grippers that are more like a pair of tongs. Some people are designing better “hands,” similar to humans’. But even if they succeed, I don’t think it will solve the problem. A human being with a pair of chopsticks will still be vastly more capable than a robot dealing with a novel situation, at least in the near future.

Q: Mobile phones are changing our lives. Will robots affect us more radically?

MM: Robots have been changing our lives, but not our minds. Often, we see an automated device as too simple to call it a robot. I’m excited about applications of robots in education. At Carnegie Mellon we have an automated tutor, which listens to children read, corrects their mistakes, and guides and encourages them. Space exploration is changing. Our motion-planning software was used in the NASA rovers, which have explored Mars. The driverless car, medical robots, and technologies that can watch and pay intelligent attention to all the space around us and inside our bodies will cause amazing changes in our lives.

Q: You have the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon. Do robots themselves select inductees?

MM: That would take all the fun from being a judge … and would scare me a bit (laughs).

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