Cynthia Breazeal & Sociable Robots

Tonight I went to hear Cynthia Breazeal speak at the Commonwealth Club.  Cynthia is Director of MIT’s Robotic Life Group and spoke on the subject of Social Robots, social interaction and socially situated learning between people and life-like robots.  She was interviewed by Donald Norman (Design Theorist; Author, Emotional Design; Professor of Computer Science and Psychology, Northwestern University).  Cynthia is responsible for an experimental robot named Kismet and a newer one named Leonardo (which was developed in cooperation with the animatronics person, Stan Winston, who was responsible for the robots in the movie A. I.).



Kismet responds to praise by smiling and to scolding by lowering its head.  It leans its head forward when interested and recoils when scared.  While Kismet doesn’t actually experience emotions, it responds as if it has emotions.  These responses, while they appear to show emotions are very convincing and make it easy for us to communicate with them.

We saw a short film about her work which included footage of an art installation she was commissioned to build that looked like a cyber garden with various plants and flowers that responded to different kinds of stimuli. 

Recently, I saw a documentary about dogs and how they came to become part of human social life.  The documentary raised a hypothesis that humans did not domesticate dogs into human society, but that dogs allowed us to bring them into human society.  In any case it is their social and emotional attributes that make dogs so appealing to us and allow us to be comfortable with them in our social scene.  The same seems to be the case with human/robot interactions.  We will communicate better if we can have an emotional response to them.

I had some questions:

  • I wondered what the downside might be to a “false” sense of attachment to a robot.  The Kismet robot was very adept at appearing to respond in an emotional way and in experiments, people typically responded as if they were talking to a baby.  They became very attached and bonded easily with Kismet’s apparent emotional responses.  What might be the drawbacks to the realization that the ‘machine’ doesn’t even come close to actually having emotions.
  • I also wondered about the idea that perhaps movies like Star Wars and A. I. and the various “embodiments” presented in  popular culture are preparing us to accept variety in robotics.

If you have QuickTime you can watch an incredible movie of Leonardo interacting with a human as it tries to learn.  Amazing.

Here’s a movie that shows a range of expressions.


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