A group of scientists who set out to build a robot with human social skills may have actually improved on humanity: Their creation courteously steps aside for people, smiles during conversation and politely asks directions.
The 6-foot robot, named GRACE, for Graduate Robot Attending Conference, will wander a symposium on artificial intelligence that begins this weekend, where it will demonstrate its good manners. It will try to sign in at the registration desk, find a conference room, give a speech and answer questions.
GRACE, a drum-shaped contraption with a digitally animated face that appears on a computer display, is the work of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and elsewhere.
GRACE is the only autonomous machine — that is, one without remote controllers — entered in the mobile robot challenge at the American Association of Artificial Intelligence's National meeting in Edmonton, Alberta.
Other robots will be attending — some clad in tuxedos and serving hors d'oeuvres — in an attempt to show off the latest machines that can move safely and naturally among people.
GRACE was designed by her principally male creators to be female. But in form, at least, she is not much of a woman.
It has no arms or legs. Instead, its barrel-shaped torso, sheathed with sonar panels and black plastic bumper guards, rolls on wheels. GRACE cannot handle stairs or escalators.
The robot's feminine attributes are limited to a voice that sounds like an automated telephone operator and a heart-shaped cartoon face with big blue eyes and high cheekbones. But the voice and lips are poorly synchronized, making GRACE look like a character in a poorly dubbed foreign film.
On Sunday, a team of nervous designers will watch as GRACE attempts the challenge.
The robot's laser and sonar components are supposed to sense distances and steer GRACE around people. Its camera vision system and speech recognition software are supposed to recognize humans' hand gestures and words.
And its artificial intelligence "brain" is supposed to gather all the information and tell the machine how to react.
Whether GRACE will accomplish all these things without a slip-up
while acting, well, graceful — is the question.
"This is so far the hardest thing I've ever done in my career," said Robotics engineer Bryn Wolfe, a 17-year industry veteran involved in the project. "That's why I'm so nervous about it."
Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Reid Simmons, coordinating the GRACE project with help from the Naval Research Laboratory, Swarthmore College, Northwestern University and defense contractor Metrica Inc., gave GRACE a 50 percent chance of completing all her tasks.
Simmons, who said the robot was made female because he believes women communicate better than men, solicited drama students to teach GRACE how to act like a human. It was a tough task.
"Just think of what a robot would have to do just to answer a question from a person in terms of speech recognition," said competition co-chair Holly Yanco. "Not only that, but people ask questions in different ways."
Ultimately, the Carnegie Mellon team hopes to teach GRACE to schmooze, by recognizing a person and asking questions.
"Whatever happens it'll be a step forward — a good start for coming years," Simmons said of this weekend's competition.