Chalking up a triumph for mechanical friends

by Eve Savory, CBCNews.ca

Maybe it was the robot’s gorgeous blue eyes, maybe it was the way he giggled when they touched his head. Whatever the reason, toddlers in a University of California San Diego experiment accepted a breakdancing, singing robot as a peer — convincing researchers the technology is almost ready for prime time.

Developing robots that can interact and help us has proved an "elusive goal," researchers say, even as the mechanical side chalks up triumphs.

But the research, published today online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows current robot technology is "surprisingly close" to achieving that goal, according to co-author Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory.

The researchers watched and recorded video of the toddlers for five months while they interacted with a cuddly bear, a inanimate robot imitation called "Robby," and the real thing,a robot called Qrio.

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Children interact with a robot as part of the RUBI Project at the UC San Diego Early Childhood Education Center. (UCSD photo)

The state of the art, half metre robot was developed by Sony, but abandoned when the company walked away from robotics research in January 2006.

The children hugged the inanimate Robby in the beginning, but they looked at Qrio — a kind of displacement, Movellan thinks. Eventually, Robby was treated as if "he" was really just an "it." But as Qrio’s behavior made him seem more and more like a fellow toddler, he got the hugs. In the entire five months, Movellan says the teddy bear, the object most hugged before Qrio arrived, was "completely ignored — it wasn’t touched."

And while at first, the children treated Qrio very differently from themselves, by the end of the experiment, he was touched with the same comfort and familiarity as if he were another child, if a slightly clumsy one, prone to fall asleep in the middle of the room as his batteries faded. When he did, the children would cry, try to help him up, or cover him with a blanket and wish him "nigh,nigh."

Human boredom has been a major problem for successful social interaction with robots.
Ten hours seems to be our limit. But with Qrio, Movellan says the longer the toddlers interacted, the more interested they got. "They were having a blast," he says.

The secret?

Well, at one point, the researchers re-programmed the robot to only do the behaviour the children liked best. Qrio danced and sang the same song over and over and over, no doubt driving the adults to distraction.

The kids’ interest — and affection — plummeted. It only came back when the robot’s full repertoire of behaviour was re-introduced.

Qrio has now retired from the classroom. But the research continues, with Asabo,an interactive, autonomous robot who is teaching the children names, shapes, colours and words. Movellan expects to show the robots can play an important role helping teachers. In the bigger picture, he says, the goal of social bonding with robots is important to pursue — and the technology is there to do it now.