Robot Babies

Can scientists build a machine that learns as it goes and plays well with others?

Building a robot that humans can love is pretty ambitious. But Javier Movellan (in his San Diego lab with RUBI) says he would like to develop a robot that loves humans. (Timothy Archibald)
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What a social robot's face should look like is a critical, and surprisingly difficult, decision. CB2's face is intended to be androgynous and abstract, but somehow it has tumbled into what robotics experts term the "uncanny valley," where a machine looks just human enough to be unsettling. The iCub, another precocious child-inspired robot being built by a pan-European team, looks more appealing, with cartoonish wide eyes and an endearing expression. "We told the designers to make it look like someone who needed help," says the Italian Institute of Technology's Sandini, who's leading the project. "Someone...a little sad."

When I met Movellan he seemed flummoxed by the matter of his robot's facial appearance: Should the features be skeletal or soft-tissue, like Einstein's? He was also pondering whether it would be male or female. "All my robots so far have been girls—my daughter has insisted," he explains. "Maybe it's time for a boy." Later, he and his co-workers asked Hanson to help design a face for the Project One robot, which will be named Diego. The "developmental android" will be modeled after a real child, the chubby-cheeked nephew of a researcher in Movellan's lab.

Though Movellan believes that a human infant is born with very little pre-existing knowledge, even he says it comes with needs: to be fed, warmed, napped and relieved of a dirty diaper. Those would have to be programmed into the robot, which quickly gets complicated. "Will this robot need to evacuate?" says John Watson, a University of California at Berkeley professor emeritus of psychology who is a Project One consultant. "Will the thing need sleep cycles? We don't know."

Others outside the project are skeptical that baby robots will reveal much about human learning, if only because a human grows physically as well as cognitively. "To mimic infant development, robots are going to have to change their morphology in ways that the technology isn't up to," says Ron Chrisley, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sussex in England. He says realistic human features are usually little more than clever distractions: scientists should focus on more basic models that teach us about the nature of intelligence. Human beings learned to fly, Chrisley notes, when we mastered aerodynamics, not when we fashioned realistic-looking birds. A socially capable robot might not resemble a human being anymore than an airplane looks like a sparrow.

Maybe the real magic of big-eyed, round-faced robobabies is their ability to manipulate our own brains, says Hamid Ekbia, a cognitive science professor at Indiana University and the author of Artificial Dreams: The Quest for Non-Biological Intelligence. Infantalized facial features, he says, primarily tap into our attraction to cute kids. "These robots say more about us than they do about machines," says Ekbia. "When people interact with these robots, they get fascinated, but they read beneath the surface. They attribute qualities to the robot that it doesn't have. This is our disposition as human beings: to read more than there is."

Of course, Movellan would counter that such fascination is, in Project One's case, quite essential: to develop like a real child, the machine must be treated like one.

Each Project One researcher defines success differently. Some will declare victory if the robot learns to crawl or to identify basic objects. Watson says he would be grateful to simulate the first three months of development. Certainly, no one expects the robot to progress at the same rate as a child. Project One's timeline extends over four years, and it may take that long before the robot is exposed to people outside the lab—"caregivers" (read: undergrads) who will be paid to baby-sit. Lacking a nursery, the robot will be kept behind glass on a floor beneath Movellan's lab, accessible, for the time being, only to researchers.

As for Movellan, he hopes that the project will "change the way we see human development and bring a more computational bent to it, so we appreciate the problems the infant brain is solving." A more defined understanding of babies' brains might also give rise to new approaches to developmental disorders. "To change the questions that psychologists are asking—that to me is the dream," Movellan adds. "For now it is, how do you get its arm to work, the leg to work? But when we put the pieces together, things will really start to happen."

Before leaving the lab, I stop to bid goodbye to Einstein. All is not well with the robot. Its eye cameras have become obsessed with the glowing red exit sign over the workshop's door. Hanson switches the robot off and on; its movements are palsied; its eyes roll. Its German accent isn't working and the tinny-sounding conversational software seems to be on the fritz. Hanson peers into its eyes. "Hi there," he says. "Can you hear me? Are you listening?"

Einstein: (No response.)


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