May 22, 2003 

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Smart Robots (video)
April 24, 2003

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Interviewee: David Hanson, University Of Texas - Dallas.

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Imagine a robot that can smile, frown, and even react to your expressions and emotions.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, some scientists are making machines more like people.


Mechanical Mirrors

In science fiction movies, robots are often depicted as rampaging metallic monsters striking back against their creators, and the fact that they’re “not like us” is what makes them believable as villains.

“Actually, Hollywood or the movie industry is way ahead of reality,” says Yoseph Bar-Cohen, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “They are actually pushing it and portraying it beyond what we can do today.

“But,” he adds, “it’s good to have this. We need to see the implications of technology like that, both the positive and the negative. And the more vision we have, the better we are, because we can perceive the possibilities.”

David Hanson, an artist and doctoral student at the Institute for Interactive Arts and Engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, thinks we need to create social robots. “If we don’t begin to create a spirit of social cooperation in these machines that are going to become such a large part of our lives,” says Hanson, “then the technology that’s being built for destruction, such as military-type robots, might be less compassionate to us.”

Hanson is venturing towards that goal by starting to make robots look and act more like us. He has designed sophisticated robot heads capable of 28 facial movements. They have cameras behind their eyes that follow your movements, and software that drives tiny motors under their “skin,” which is made of F’rubber, a pliable foam and rubber mix that Hanson created to mimic your facial expressions. They can smile, frown, squint and sneer.

Hanson, who used to design robots for Disney theme parks, believes that if robots can master the “emotional language” of facial expressions, people will be more at ease around them. In his quest to humanize computers, putting a “human face” on them is key. “The important part for the robot, to interact with people, is learning to be able to see your emotional responses as well,” says Hanson.

“The robots know to be happy, sad, angry, and so forth, in a very crude way at this stage. There’s a lot of work to be done. But basically, it’s an emotional mirroring response that’s being designed to operate the robot at this point. So, if you smile at the robot, then the robot is designed to smile back at you.” This mirroring, or mimicking ability, is an important part of how these robots will put humans at ease. People feel more comfortable if it appears that a robot understands human facial expressions, and one way to give that impression is for a robot to mimic what human faces are doing.

“There is so much remarkable information in the human body,” says Hanson, “and it makes sense, if you’re going to create a robot that’s intended to interact with people, that you would borrow the natural communication systems of people. So I’ve modeled the facial expressions, the mechanisms by which we express our intentions, our emotions, and social bonding activities with our fellow human beings. The goal there is to create a robot that we can feel love for, and that helps us understand more the patterns and codes by which we interact with each other.” Hanson also thinks that neuroscientists could use the robots as “a test platform for trying out their theories for how the mind works and how people interact with each other socially.”

Virtual Companions

Hanson believes that aside from their scientific applications, these robots will have many other uses. “You could use them for entertainment. You could use them for education. You could use them for testing science theories. You can also use them to provide companionship for people who might be literally dying of loneliness.” He envisions the robots sitting with people who are old or sick, or helping children with autism interpret and respond to facial expressions, all for a fraction of the cost of other methods and treatments.

Hanson plans to give his robot heads some bodies soon. “I’m going to make them mobile. They are going to walk around and interact with the world. At that point you’ll start to see some interesting behaviors begin to emerge.”
And what does Hanson say to humans who still feel uneasy around robots? “I would address those fears by saying, if we can create robots that are sociable and socially cooperative and work with us, then we have nothing to fear. And that’s why putting a human face on robots at this stage is so important.

“There are some real morals in all the tales of destructive robots such as Terminator and 2001,” he adds. “Even the source of the word ‘robot’ is a play written about robots rising up in a factory to overthrow humans. So, not to say there is anything to be paranoid [about] per se, but if we can make robots socially cooperative, then they will be so much more useful to us as a species, and they will bring so much more meaning and value to our lives.”



by Karen Lurie


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