Sociable Robots and Me

4 08 2007

Robin Marantz Henig reports in The New York Times Magazine

I was introduced to my first sociable robot on a sunny afternoon in June. The robot, developed by graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was named Mertz. It had camera sensors behind its eyes, which were programmed to detect faces; when it found mine, the robot was supposed to gaze at me directly to initiate a kind of conversation. But Mertz was on the fritz that day, and one of its designers, a dark-haired young woman named Lijin Aryananda, was trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Mertz was getting fidgety, Aryananda was getting frustrated and I was starting to feel as if I were peeking behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz.

sociable robot

Mertz consists of a metal head on a flexible neck. It has a childish computer-generated voice and expressive brows above its Ping-Pong-ball eyes — features designed to make a human feel kindly toward the robot and enjoy talking to it. But when something is off in the computer code, Mertz starts to babble like Chatty Cathy on speed, and it becomes clear that behind those big black eyes there’s truly nobody home.

In a video of Aryananda and Mertz in happier times, Aryananda can be seen leaning in, trying to get the robot’s attention by saying, “I’m your mother.” She didn’t seem particularly maternal on that June day, and Mertz didn’t seem too happy, either. It directed a stream of sentences at me in apparently random order: “You are too far away.” “Please teach me some colors.” “You are too far away.”

Maybe something was wrong with its camera sensor, Aryananda said. Maybe that was why it kept looking up at the ceiling and complaining. As she fiddled with the computer that runs the robot, I smiled politely — almost as much for the robot’s sake, I realized, as for the robot maker’s — and thought: Well, maybe it is the camera sensor, but if this thing wails “You are too far away” one more time, I’m going to throttle it.

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