2 Jun 2015

Tiny robot tests conversation skills

7:42 pm on 2 June 2015

Christchurch's Imagination Station has made use of a friendly fireman to try and ask for donations to keep the centre running.

The all-singing, dancing, talking robot was designed by a Japanese Masters student Shogo Nishiguchi, from Osaka University, and New Zealand researchers from the University of Canterbury and stands just 20 centimetres high.

The talking LEGO robot is a collaboration between UC’s HIT Lab NZ and Japan’s Osaka University.

The talking LEGO robot is a collaboration between UC’s HIT Lab NZ and Japan’s Osaka University. Photo: Supplied

"We used a fireman with a helmet, so we could easily put a camera inside the helmet and it didn't look too awkward," said Canterbury University's Christoph Bartneck.

The robot was specially programmed to be able to hold a conversation - providing there wasn't too much interruption.

"People talk over each other in normal conversation - humans can do that. But for a robot, that's quite hard, because distinguishing between an audio signal from the speech of a user and the speech that it generates itself or even the sound of its motors is very very hard.

"So therefore it is necessary for the robot to either listen or speak, but not both at the same time."

It was programmed with a series of pre-scripted conversations, although it responded to whatever visitors said to it.

"You can essentially say anything, and the computer will come back with an answer. It doesn't always make sense, but it's pretty good," said Dr Bartneck.

"But at the end of the day, people, and particularly children, are quite unpredictable, and they can come up with all sorts of questions that you are being directed."

Mr Nishiguchi said that to solve the problem they embedded an online database of conversation, called Chatbot, which gives proper answers to questions.

"The advantage of scripting is that the conversation is heading to a goal set by the user. On the other hand, Chatbot can answer any random questions. [The robot] makes use of both advantages," he said.

"That's where the chatbot technology comes in: that whenever the robot doesn't really understand what the person is saying, it doesn't really fit into this dialogue that we've pre-scripted, it would send it off to Chatbot, and Chatbot would come back with a response," said Dr Bartneck.

They even programmed it to have its very own sense of humour.

"When the people were actually trying to put in some money, we'd say, 'Oh, I'm sorry - I only accept $50 or $100 notes. No, just kidding, you can put in whatever you want.' Keeping it light-hearted."

But has it got enough heart to replace a human?

"Ah, this is a very nasty comparison! Usually people in the robotics community try to steer away from comparing humans directly to robots, for the very simple reason that humans usually always win, and it always showcases how horrible robots still are in comparison to humans.

"But what we have to look at is the progress that robots make - it's much fairer to compare a robot that we're making right now to one we made two or three years ago. We can monitor the programmes we have made, and see what further directions we should take."

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