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Keywords: Robots, Robotics, AI, machine learning

Title: Designing Sociable Robots

Author: Cynthia L. Breazeal

Publisher: MIT Press

ISBN: 0262524317

Media: Book, CD


Fictional robots are useful constructions for projecting our fears, hopes, utopias and darkest dystopias. Fictional robots, whether they be Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet or the cyborgs from the Terminator films, share two things in common. The first and most obvious is that they are smart and can interact with humans in a manner which engages our emotions as well as our intellects. The second is that they bear no resemblance to any robots currently roaming a factory floor, research lab or toy store.

In this book Cynthia Breazeal describes her work in building Kismet, a robot that aims to engage humans on an emotional level. Kismet is a robot that is explicitly designed to provoke an emotional, sympathetic response with the people it comes into contact with. It's not a smart robot in the sense that it has a level of intelligence (assuming a fuzzy 'I know it when I see it' definition of intelligence) that is comparable to ours. That isn't what Kismet is about, it's more to do with attempting to create a machine that can take part in a relationship similar to that between a baby and a care-giver.

The CD that accompanies the book allows us to take a look at Kismet in practice. It responds to movement, human faces, tone of voice etc. It gurgles back, smiles, frowns and generally behaves in a manner that is recognisable child-like. The movies on the CD are entertaining enough, and they illustrate in a way that the text does not how the machine interacts with the world.

Unfortunately the text reads like a PhD thesis, which is what I suspect it was before it was turned into a book. There's too much repetition, too many references, too little attention paid to the reader and too much to impressing her supervisors. This is a shame as the subject is interesting and the implications of the work may be immense. We respond to language and gesture instinctively, once these are mechanised we will, whether we like it or not, find ourselves emotionally engaging to machines in a manner that we can barely imagine now. If we have trouble resisting advertising now, just think what it will be like resisting a walking, talking, likable machine?

For now Kismet is an expensive toy, but lessons are being learned and the work will continue to develop. For instance, research reported recently in the New Scoentist shows that people wer4e more likely to give to chairy if they were presented with an image of Kismet's robotic countenance. We respond emotionally even to a robot if he wears an expression that we recognise as one of our own. If Breazeal's book and CD are pointers to what we can look forward to, then alarm bells ought to start ringing right now.

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Contents © TechBookReport 2005. Published March 30 2005