Developing robots that can teach humans

Mar 06, 2012 By Miles O' Brien and Jon Baime
Credit: NASA

When it comes to communication, sometimes it's our body language that says the most--especially when it comes to our eyes.

"It turns out that tells us all sorts of things about attention, about , about roles in conversations," says Bilge Mutlu, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Mutlu knows a thing or two about the psychology of . He bills himself as a human-computer interaction specialist. Support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping Mutlu and his fellow computer scientist, Michael Gleicher, take gaze behavior in humans and create algorithms to reproduce it in robots and animated characters.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

"These are behaviors that can be modeled and then designed into robots so that they (the behaviors) can be used on demand by a robot whenever it needs to refer to something and make sure that people understand what it's referring to," explains Mutlu.

Both Mutlu and Gleicher are betting that there will be significant benefits to making robots and animated characters "look" more like humans. "We can build animated agents and robots that can communicate more effectively by using the very subtle cues that people use," says Gleicher.

Mutlu sets up experiments to study the effect of a robot gaze on humans. "We are interested in seeing how referential gaze cues might facilitate collaborative work such that if a robot is giving instructions to people about a task that needs to be completed, how does that gaze facilitate that instruction task and people's understanding of the instruction and the execution of that task," says Mutlu.

To demonstrate, a three-foot-tall, yellow robot in the computer sciences lab greets subjects, saying: "Hi, I'm Wakamaru, nice to meet you. I have a task for you to categorize these objects on the table into boxes."

In one case, the robot very naturally glances toward the objects it "wants" sorted as it speaks. In another case, the robot just stares at the person. Mutlu says the results are pretty clear. "When the uses humanlike gaze cues, people are much faster in locating the objects that they have to move."

Another experiment run by Mutlu and Gleicher's team explores how an animated character's eyes affect human learning. A character projected on a screen says to the viewer, "Today, I'll be telling you a story that comes straight from ancient China." Behind the animated character is a map of China that he'll be referring to in the lecture that runs several minutes.

"The goal of the experiment is to see if we could achieve a high-level outcome, like learning, by controlling an animated character's gaze," says Gleicher. "What we found was when the lecturer looked at the map at appropriate times to indicate to the participant that now I'm talking about something on the map, the participant ended up learning more about spatial locations."

The team hopes their work will transform how humanoid robots and animated characters interface with people, especially in classrooms. "We can design technology that really benefits people in learning, in health and in well-being, and in collaborative work," notes Mutlu.

Now, that's technology worth keeping an eye on!

Explore further: In Japan, robot dogs are for life - and death

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Robotic dragon, an unlikely teacher

Oct 21, 2011

David DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, are examining how social robots can aid preschoolers ...

iRobot planning an Android-based robot

May 12, 2011

( -- iRobot is working on robots that have the brains of an Android tablet. The goal is an Android-based tablet that is able to see the world around it, hear input from humans, respond and think ...

Thanks to RoboEarth the bots can learn on their own

Feb 10, 2011

( -- We tend to assume that robots need human input in order to understand the world around them. In the near future humans may not even be a part of the robotic-learning equation. Soon, robots ...

Robots learn to create language

May 17, 2011

( -- Communication is a vital part of any task that has to be done by more than one individual. That is why humans in every corner of the world have created their own complex languages that help ...

Recommended for you

US spymaster warns over low-level cyber attacks

51 minutes ago

A steady stream of low-level cyber attacks poses the most likely danger to the United States rather than a potential digital "armageddon," US intelligence director James Clapper said on Thursday.

Australian laws on storing phone, Internet records to change

1 hour ago

(AP)—A parliamentary committee has recommended a major rewrite of draft laws that would force Australian telephone companies and Internet providers to store customers' personal data for the convenience of law enforcement ...

Stock market shrugs off net neutrality vote

1 hour ago

(AP)—The stock market largely shrugged off the Federal Communications Commission's vote to impose tougher rules on broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to prevent them from creating paid fast lanes for the ...

Key facts on US 'open Internet' regulation

11 hours ago

A landmark ruling by the US Federal Communications Commission seeks to enshrine the notion of an "open Internet," or "net neutrality." Here are key points:

Spotify deals with random shuffle and us mortals

11 hours ago

How do we mortals perceive random sequences? An entry in the question-and-answer site Quora focused on a question involving a music-streaming service Spotify. That question signifies how we perceive what ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.