Robots were first popularly imagined as mechanical humans with artificial brains, capable of doing everything humans can do without needing a coffee break. Artificial intelligence (AI) programming proved more complex than anticipated. Robots built for specific mechanical tasks, however, did supplant humans on many assembly lines. Appearance didn’t matter for some jobs. It still isn’t necessary for defeating chess grand masters or winning on Jeopardy. To be effective teachers, though, robots need to be able to look us in the eye.
“It turns out that gaze tells us all sorts of things about attention, about mental states, about roles in conversations,” says Bilge Mutlu, computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Supported by the National Science Foundation, Mutlu and fellow computer scientist Michael Gleicher take gaze behavior in humans and create algorithms to reproduce it in robots and animated characters. “We are interested in seeing how referential gaze cues might facilitate collaborative work such that if a robot is giving instructions to people about a task that needs to be completed, how does that gaze facilitate that instruction task and people’s understanding of the instruction and the execution of that task,” says Mutlu. For more about their research and a video about one of their experiments, see www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/gazeintomyeyes.jsp?wt.mc_id=usnsf_51.
From a related story, it appears that if robots act more humanlike, less robotic, people will respond in kind, even when they know intellectually that robots are without feeling. “We have one social brain, and it’s the same whether we’re dealing with a person or a machine," says Clifford I. Nass, the Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University. Nass has teamed up with Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University and a professor of computer science and engineering, to design a rescue robot that is userfriendly (see www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=118874).
Rescue robots are the communication link between trapped victims and rescuers. The machines are worthless if the victim finds them scary, bossy, out-of-control, or just plain creepy. Nass and Murphy are working to ease the “creepy” factor.