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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
Acceptable face of robotics
People found robot with a face "compelling"
By BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

The days of having a robot greet you with a friendly smile and interact with you in a natural way may not be far off.

Researchers at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, US, are working to develop a robot with a personality and which can behave according to social conventions.

They see this as the next step in the evolution of robotics.

"Robotics is getting to the point that a lot of hard problems people have been dealing with for the past 10 or 20 years are starting to be solved," Allison Leigh Bruce, from the Robotics Institute, told BBC News Online.

"A lot of interest has been shown in having service robots, or museum tour guide robots - robots that are going to be inherently living in spaces that people inhabit and interacting with a lot of people who don't know a lot about robots."

Friendly face

Researchers believe the answer lies in making robots behave more like people, starting off by giving them a friendly human face.

"We are doing a lot with facial expression, so when the robot tells you something, you don't just get the robot's voice, as synthesised speech is very flat and doesn't have any of the emotional cues people put into their own speech."

We are doing a lot with facial expression, so when the robot tells you something, you don't just get the robot's voice, as synthesised speech is very flat

Allison Leigh Bruce, Carnegie Mellon University
Vikia is the first step towards making robots more acceptable to people.

She has been given a realistic personality, including her own personal history as the first robotic student at Carnegie Mellon University.

The robot has a flat-screen monitor which is used to display an animated computer graphics model of a female face. This face lip-syncs any dialogue that the robot says using text-to-speech software and can be programmed to exhibit a variety of facial expressions.

'Compelling' face

The robot also uses a laser range scanner to track nearby people.

"If you're trying to greet someone and be friendly towards them, you accompany it with a big smile, turning towards the person so that they know that your attention is focused on them," says Ms Bruce.

Next step: Different faces and reactions
So far, the results have been encouraging.

The researchers tested Vikia out on passers-by. The robot would sense a person, turn its face towards them and ask them to stop and answer a question.

"People did find the robot with the face a lot more compelling," says Ms Bruce. "It did make a significant difference."

The next stage for the researchers is to experiment with different kinds of faces, to see if this makes a difference in people's reactions. They also hope to use machine learning algorithms so that the robot can work out which people are more likely to be willing to interact and focus on them.

"We expect this ability to be very useful in crowded environments, where the robot can't interact with everyone around it, and many people won't necessarily be interested in the robot," says Ms Bruce.

The research is being funded by Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

It was established in 1979 to conduct basic and applied research in robotics technologies and transfer them to industry to enhance productivity and product quality.

Allison Leigh Bruce
"Interest in having service robots, or museum tour guide robots"
Allison Leigh Bruce
"People find a robot with a face more compelling"
See also:

21 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Predicting AI's future
12 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Computer babbles like a baby
10 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Past is the future for Hollywood's robots
10 Sep 01 | Artificial intelligence
Timeline: Real robots
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