Dances With Robots

Norihiro Hagita recently put a 3-year-old girl and her mother into a room with a robot and kept them there for two hours. At first, the girl and the robot chatted and played. When the robot asked her to give him a hug, she happily complied. But after a time the two of them ran out of new things to do, and the little girl plopped down on the floor for a nap. The robot waited to make sure the girl had truly lost interest, then approached her mother and struck up a conversation. "Now here's the interesting part," says Hagita, pointing to the girl on videotape. "See how she sits up and watches? The robot is interacting with her mother and that's got her upset." He can't help but grin. "The robot has made her jealous."

While engineers in most of the world try to make robots that perform specific and usually unpleasant tasks, from fighting wars to performing deep-sea salvage, Japanese engineers are obsessed with making the machines more human. Having put the country squarely in the lead of the industrial robot market for the past two decades, they're now working on a new generation of robots that will serve as playmates, pets and social workers. Says Hagita: "The goal is to build an intelligent environment for the symbiosis of robots and humans in everyday life. The real challenge is to come up with robots that can actually communicate with people."

The key is to solve the myriad technical problems that stand in the way of making robots that are easy to live with--everything from understanding speech and gestures to making eye contact and having an awareness of a humans' "personal space." Roboticists in Japan talk about a machine's "social intelligence" or "shared experience."

The first members of the new humanoid generation are having a coming-out party of sorts at the World Expo in Aichi, which opened in March and runs through September. Guests are welcomed by an android female receptionist who speaks 30,000 phrases in four languages and even knows how to fend off unwelcome advances from male Homo sapiens. Sony's remarkably limber dancing robot QRIO demonstrates why he's even served as an unofficial ambassador for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on some of his trips abroad. Toyota's Partner robots, which play musical instruments using artificial lips and lungs, have been drawing sellout crowds at their concerts. Although these robots are a big improvement over the clunky devices of a few years ago, they're only a first draft. Scientists working in the laboratory are readying a new army of even more sensitive machines.

Giving robots a sense of touch is an important way of making them more human. At the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, or ATR, near Kyoto, Hagita and his colleagues are working on outfitting a prototype robot with thick, cream-colored skin made of silicon layers embedded with myriad tiny sensors. When you touch the robot on the back, it turns around and greets you.

Getting robots to understand real-life human speech may be the hardest job of all. Separating words from background noises and parsing language has proved to be a formidable problem. For this reason, scientists are trying to give robots means other than language to understand what people are telling them. One promising technology is intended to help robots figure out the relationships among their human interlocutors. Hagita and his colleagues are programming robots to note how long people spend with each other in a room and to take friendships among people into account when communicating with them. Understanding the variety of gestures and signs that people use to supplement language would help, too. Other ATR scientists have been drawing up crib sheets that they can program into robots to help them figure out that a smiling human is probably happy, while a frowning one usually isn't.

One of the most effective ways to overcome communication challenges, it turns out, is to help robots talk to each other. Two humanoid robots sharing notes with each other would be able to pool information about their human charges to figure out what they want. Robots could pick up information from the Internet, PDAs or closed-circuit TVs.

Wireless ID tags are another rich potential source of information. At a trade fair, a robotic receptionist could use ID tags to identify visitors and acquire information about them--what sort of work they do, where they're from and so forth. It might gather additional data about the visitor from "ubiquitous sensors," ranging from microphones to biometric sensors to closed- circuit TVs--noting where they like to eat, or what talks they prefer to attend. Hagita's researchers have already used ID tags during a trial in an elementary school, where kids who had been equipped with the tags were surprised when the robots addressed them by name. Hagita gleefully recalls one sixth grader who boasted to his friend that the robot "likes me better" because the robot addressed him by name more often than the other boy. Other children told researchers that they felt sorry for the robot because no other children were playing with it. "This is also a human relationship," says Hagita. "We've developed an agent. He's already a kind of human simulation."

That emphasis on the future function of robots as companions and helpers seems to be deeply Japanese. The reason may have much to do with Japanese popular culture, where robots like the cartoon cat Doraemon or the sweet 1960s, vintage Astroboy, tend to be portrayed as beneficent, friendly types. The tendency to regard lifelike machines as unthreatening may have deeper roots in Japan's animist Shinto culture, where inanimate objects--ranging from teapots to samurai swords--can have souls. There's also the social imperative: as the population ages, the Japanese are increasingly looking toward robots to help make up the labor shortfall.

The government, says Hagita, is promoting projects that have social applications, like nursing or child care. That may well give a push to the development of humanoids--for if robots are doing social work, they'll have to look and act considerably more like people than they do right now. And if Hagita and his colleagues have their way, that will happen sooner than you think.