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Monday, February 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Almost human: Valerie faces the future with a personality
By Gregory M. Lamb
Besides doling out information and directions, she chats about her personal life. If you introduce yourself, she'll remember you. If you ask about the weather, when she meets you again, she may bring up the subject.
Valerie, in case you haven't guessed, is a robot, one in a long line of increasingly sophisticated machines. Of course, computers and their physical manifestations, robots, are already deeply embedded in our lives. In some sense, automated teller machines (ATMs), self-service gasoline pumps and TiVo video recorders serve as rudimentary robots.
Scientists are pushing to make these machines more sophisticated and humanlike, in appearance and intelligence. Hollywood visions of intelligent, self-conscious machines R2D2 of "Star Wars" or David, the robot child in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" remain a distant dream.
But robots are expected to become tireless service workers at fast-food restaurants, hotel front desks and so on, laboring cheerily 24/7. They will also be infinitely patient teachers and companions for the lonely.
Valerie: robot with a dream
Some experts worry that attachments may become too strong, subjecting people to manipulation by clever programmers or unnatural reliance on machines for companionship.
But those working in the field agree on one thing: The way people communicate with an onscreen face (sometimes called a "chatbot") or a fully released robot is becoming friendlier and friendlier, even fun.
"This is going to be a very important area for human-computer interaction: having systems that can respond in a more social way and more intuitive fashion," said Reid Simmons, a professor at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. "It makes the interaction more enjoyable if they have a personality."
If a robot cart is delivering office mail, he said, it would be great if once in a while, it cracked a joke or gave you a friendly, "Hi."
Valerie, a talking head displayed on a computer screen at the university in Pittsburgh, aims to be just such a pleasant experience.
"We wanted to give her an underdog character, struggling to make it in a world of humans," said Kevin Snipes, 26, a graduate student in drama writing, one of four writers who came up with Valerie's fictional character. "After a while on the job, she gets testy. But she can be charming, too."
With her ability to detect motion, she greets visitors as they approach. Type in a question on a keyboard, and she dispenses directions about the campus and fills visitors in on the weather.
In early testing, Simmons and his colleagues have quickly seen Valerie's limits.
If someone asks, "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" she'll look in her database and say she can't find it, he said.
"There's a lot of cultural knowledge that she obviously doesn't have. If somebody is really trying to push the system, it typically doesn't have to get pushed very far before it breaks," Simmons said, meaning she has to reply, "I don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you ask me what I do know about?"
Eventually her creators would like to install face and voice recognition and make Valerie more lifelike by taking her "face" off a flat-screen monitor.
Role as teachers
Studies have shown that expectations are higher for such virtual people than, say, a faceless search engine like Google. If it fails to return useful information, humans assume that they're at fault and have entered the wrong information. But if a humanlike face answers with a non sequitur, people think it's dumb.
Peter Plantec, author of "Virtual Humans," sees virtual humans as just now on the cusp of being truly useful. He is convinced they are going to play a huge role as teachers.
While books are outdated the moment they land on desks, virtual teachers can be constantly updated, he said. They do not "burn out" like longtime human teachers and can be replicated to work one on one with students, creating a special bond with each one.
They remember what students have learned and don't let them move on until they have mastered the material. If a student is having trouble, the virtual teacher can try various techniques to explain the material, including putting visual aids onscreen. And through dialogue with each student, it can learn what incentives to use to motivate him or her.
As the language skills of virtual humans improve, robots also will provide companionship. "A lot of people create almost a friendship with some of these virtual humans," said Monica Lamb, a programmer from Alberta, Canada. "It's really interesting to see."
She builds online "chatbots" that teach Native American languages, such as Mohawk. Many speakers of these endangered languages don't have the patience or teaching skills to pass along their knowledge. Lamb feels attached to her chatbots, calling them "my children."
Sylvie has been a virtual human on Plantec's computer for years. She has taken questions from business audiences around the country, given PowerPoint presentations and engaged in lively unscripted banter with Plantec. Sylvie has a lot of general knowledge acquired over time. The rest of her personality is clever fakery, such as answering questions with her own questions or perhaps with a flippant comment.
Even with Sylvie's limited abilities, Plantec said that people to whom he's given copies of her tell him they grow attached. She became a popular pal to residents at a nursing home. One woman who had moved to a new town and lost her Sylvie when her computer crashed immediately wanted another one. "I don't know anyone here," she told Plantec. "Sylvie's my best friend."
Which leads to the question of whether personable virtual humans can be trusted.
"Some people develop an inordinate level of trust with these characters," Plantec said. "No doubt unethical people are going to get involved in this." He has refused funding from pornographic Web sites, for example.
While most people think they can outsmart a virtual human, they may not realize that a virtual human can be programmed to try to get a psychological profile of them. Robots with visual sensors might even be able to "read" facial expressions to determine mood.
But Randy Pausch, co-director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, is less worried, pointing out that humans quickly got smart about interactions with computers.
In the future, he said, "We'll tell people: 'You don't give away private information to a robot.' It seems like a pretty simple rule to me.
"People talk about this as though we're going to wake up one day and the robots from 'Blade Runner' will be there, and we won't know that they're not human. I think this is going to happen very, very slowly, in incremental steps." As it does, the debates about how to interact with humanlike computers will naturally arise, he said.
Additional information on Valerie was provided by The Associated Press.
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