published: Dec. 6, 2010, recorded: June 2008, views: 10618
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Cynthia Breazeal’s eminently charming and huggable creatures appear to have stepped out of Santa’s North Pole workshop. But Breazeal wants you to know that her robots are attempts to create socially intelligent machines “whose behaviors are governed not just by physics but by having a mind,” and which might someday collaborate with humans in critical interactions.
Breazeal wants to shift the concept of robots from machines that explore distant places like Mars, or vacuum floors, to devices that can function in society at large, dealing with people on a daily basis “to enhance daily life, to help us as partners.”
Building sophisticated machines means delving into human social intelligence, our ability to develop a sense of self, communicate thoughts and feelings in words and gestures, and interact with others. Humans are wired to read the underlying mental states of our fellows. Can robots learn to “sense and perceive and interpret the same non-verbal cues to coordinate their ‘mind’ and behavior with people,” wonders Breazeal. Indeed, could a robot “potentially leverage its interaction with people to help bootstrap its own cognitive development”?
She demonstrates some remarkable milestones in the journey to develop such a machine. Leonardo, a Yoda-like creature, seems to have the cognitive savvy of a young child, with object permanence and a theory of other minds. He and a human confederate watch a Big Bird doll get hidden under a box. Then only Leonardo sees when a hooded man puts the doll beneath a basket. When his confederate enters the room, Leonardo can answer the question accurately, “Can you find where I think Big Bird is?” Leo points to the box (but like a child, gives the game away by looking at the basket). Leo has also absorbed social referents, reaching eagerly for Big Bird, who’s been described in a cheerful voice as fun and jolly, and shrinking away from a Cookie Monster doll, which the human “parent” has described with a scary voice and gestures as bad. If robots are going to exist in our world, says Breazeal, they have to learn from us when things are safe to explore.
Breazeal’s next generation of mobile and personable creations may serve as helpmates, tutors, teammates, or even companions “addressing the loneliness of old age.” They will certainly bring us closer to the question of “when might a machine be a person.”
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