Friendly Robots

  • By Susan K. Lewis
  • Posted 11.01.06
  • NOVA scienceNOW

As a designer of sociable robots, MIT engineer Cynthia Breazeal thinks about her creations in terms of hearts and minds as well as nuts and bolts. In this slide show, Breazeal introduces us to Kismet and other emotionally appealing robots, and she compares "raising" robots to teaching children.

Launch Interactive

Engineer Cynthia Breazeal talks about some of her favorite non-human companions in this audio slide show.


Friendly Robots

Posted: November 1, 2006

Section 1 - Robot Emotion

[Audio: child interacting with robot]

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: There's something special, I think, about robots. They kind of cross that boundary from the device to the animate world I think more than any other technology we've really been exposed to yet.

So I think we really have to, as designers of these systems, recognize that, embrace it, stop being surprised by it, but really think hard and deeply about what does it really mean to design a robot that understands and interacts and treats people as people? Because there's really no technology that does that yet. How do you build a machine to be socially and emotionally intelligent in the way that people, or at least animals, are?

The question for the robot is not, "are robots going to have human emotions or dog emotions", because they're never going to be humans or dogs, but "what is a robot emotion in that we would find it to be genuine and authentic the same way that we ascribe genuine emotions to dogs and other animals." That's the deeper question.

If you look at movies and science fiction, of course people are very readily willing to ascribe, authentic emotional states to the sort of robots that you see on the screen like R2D2 or C3PO. They wouldn't be compelling characters if you didn't, but what happens when it's in the real world, interacting with people? If you can get those sort of interactions that really capture the sense of social and emotionally intelligent behavior, I think people will be very willing to ascribe those states to robots as well.

Section 2 - Kismet

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: Kismet was groundbreaking because it was really the first. You know, Kismet kind of broke wide open the question of robots interacting in this very interpersonal, social, emotional way with people. For a completely autonomous robot, it was really the first of its kind.

Why did we try to pattern the robots on infants? Well, there's a number of reasons why we do that. One is simply from appreciating that when adults interact with infants and very young children, we adapt our behavior to that of the level of sophistication of the child in a way that helps the child understand us and interact with us.

We make bigger gestures; we make bigger facial expressions. We become almost cartoon-like in the way we interact with young children. It makes it easier, it turns out, for babies and very young children to extract what we're trying to communicate to them. So we leverage that in building these robots that are also very youthful in their nature because it helps simplify the perceptual problem for the robots.

And part of it is also just managing expectations, so having an adult interact with a robot that's not at your level, they kind of get the feeling of, oh, well this is just like a very, very young child.

Features that elicit the sort of nurturing response in adults are things that of course dolls and Disney characters and anime all possess. These really big eyes, kind of larger heads with respect to the body – it's basically sort of baby-like features. Beyond that then it's about behavior.

So a lot of our systems we actually don't do speech-like interactions. We tend to do more emotionally expressive interactions and focus much more on the non-verbal behavior.

[Audio: researcher interacting with Kismet]

Section 3 - The Huggable

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: For something like the huggable, which is being designed to be this interactive Teddy bear, the goal is to make it a sort of invisible robot in that when you interact with this Teddy bear, you shouldn't think of it as a robot at all. There shouldn't be anything distracting about it in a technological sense that you often see in these robotic toys today. So there's so much that just screams, "I'm a machine, I'm a machine." We put a soft silicone skin underneath the fur so when you touch the fur you feel something that's much more sort of fleshy almost. We've put a lot of thought into the design of the mechanics and the actuators so you don't hear the gears gnashing and you don't feel the grittiness of the gears. It feels much more like muscles.

With my own children I appreciate very much how much of when I play with them and interact with them, it's a very physical, tactile process. I sit them on my lap, I'm stroking their hair, you know, it's not just verbal or visual. It's extremely tactile.

So how do you design a robot that can understand that emotional and communicative intent behind the way you touch it? The way the bear understands, as you hold it, the relationship of its body to yours—am I holding it this way, am I sitting it on my lap, is it facing me, is it not facing me, and always kind of appreciating where its body is in relation to my own. So this physical, visceral, full-body interaction is really what that project is about.

If you were to design a learning companion for a child, being able to take a Teddy bear like this and sit it on your lap and you can discover things together and it can look to you as if something, you know, cool happened. What we really want are these sort of robotic companions that really nurture the child's curiosity and exploration and have it be a very sharing-oriented interaction where you're really encouraging the child to use their imagination.

Section 4 - Raising Robots

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: We always have wanted to say we're building these social robots to bring benefit to people's lives. Once you can actually get them to people's lives then you can really try to learn from those interactions, improve the technology. There's so much we still have yet to learn about how people are going to interact with these robots over really long term. Nobody's really done that yet.

How do we and other animals, how are we able to really learn from each other? How do you design robots that anyone could actually teach? If you want to design robots that anyone can interact with and anyone can teach, there's a really profound question about, "what is that going to be like?" Today, if you look at the way machines are trained or taught, it's by a specialist who labels extensive data sets or sets these robots in these sort of extensive training regimens that are not realistic at all for the real world, for what grandma or little Sally is going to do if they want to teach their robot.

When I'm with my children they have my complete, undivided attention. The amount of the parental investment, so to speak. You can't really appreciate it, I think, until you have children of your own.

If we're going to take learning seriously in machines, we're going to have to take experience seriously in machines, and how do you get the sort of long-term, rich, human-like experience into these machines? Well, they might have to be raised in this sort of environment. So it's a huge investment, yeah.

[Audio: children playing and laughing]

Section 5 - Human-Robot Friendship

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL: Do people really want robots that look like human beings? I think clearly in Japan where a lot of this work is being done, their culture doesn't have a problem with that. In the United States and in western cultures I think people would be averse to that idea. I don't really see the sense in doing that because robots are not human, they're never going to be human. They should be valued for what they are in their own distinct capabilities.

So can a robot ever be a friend to a human? Well, I mean, I guess the question is what do you mean by that? So is your dog your friend? Is your pet lizard your friend? What is the nature of that relationship? People definitely have emotionally kind of rewarding relationships with entities that are not human.

So yes. I mean, the short answer is yes. I think that it will be possible to have kind of human-robot friendships eventually, but I think robots are not going to be like humans, and I don't think they're going to be exactly like animals, but I think we're going to be able to kind of take lessons from both kinds of relationships and try to craft this sort of new relationship, the human-robot relationship so to speak. And that's – we have a lot to learn about that still.



Produced by
Susan K. Lewis
Edited by
David Levin

Emotion images

(child with Kismet, Kismet making faces)
Courtesy MIT
(Leonardo images)
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
(scene from Star Wars)
© Twentieth Century Fox

Kismet images

(Kismet and Cynthia Breazeal)
Courtesy Donna Coveney/MIT
(Breazeal with son)
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
(man with Kismet, woman with Kismet)
Courtesy MIT
(Disney store)
© James Leynse/CORBIS

Huggable images

(Huggable 3-D model)
Courtesy MIT Media Lab
© Sony Electronics Inc.
(hand on Huggable, Breazeal with son, Breazeal and Justin Kosslyn with Huggable)
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
(Huggable concept photo)
Courtesy Dan Stiehl/MIT Media Lab

Raising images

© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

Friendship images

(Reception Robot Actroid®)
Courtesy Kokoro Company Ltd/joint-development with Advance Media Inc. as part of Project for the Practical Application of Next-Generation Robots promoted by NEDO
Courtesy MIT
(girl with dog)
© iStockphoto/Paolo Florendo
(Breazeal with Leonardo)
© Sam Ogden

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