Q&A: Robin Marantz Henig on Sociable Robots

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I finally had time to read Robin Marantz Henig's 8000-word piece on sociable robots in the New York Times Magazine. In the article, Henig, a contributing writer for the magazine, describes what scientists mean when they talk about "sociable robots," how such robots were designed to learn by interacting with their environments, and what are the issues involving robot learning, robot emotion, and robot boyfriends.

Henig does a great job explaining how the robots work, sometimes by "peeking behind the curtain" -- the robots are mostly MIT robots, old and new, including the metal torso Cog, the bushy-eyebrowed Kismet, the talkative head Mertz, the mop-topped Autom, the Gremlinlike Leonardo, the skyscraperish Domo, and the rubbery bulgy-eyed Rodney (OK, joking about this last one).

More interesting, perhaps, Henig describes instances in which the robots misbehave, or work in a somewhat disappointing way, and hey, that's how engineering happens in the real world, so it was neat to see that in the article as well (by the way, I loved the cover headline, which to me captures the essence of this emerging field: "It Understands (Sort Of)." An excerpt:

Today's humanoids are not the sophisticated machines we might have expected by now, which just shows how complicated a task it was that scientists embarked on 15 years ago when they began working on a robot that could think. . . . They are, instead, hunks of metal tethered to computers, which need their human designers to get them going and to smooth the hiccups along the way.

But these early incarnations of sociable robots are also much more than meets the eye. Bill Gates has said that personal robotics today is at the stage that personal computers were in the mid-1970s. . . . In much the same way, the robots being built today, still unwieldy and temperamental even in the most capable hands, probably offer only hints of the way we might be using robots in another 30 years.

After reading the article, I wanted to see some of those machines in action, and it's just great you can find so many videos of them (the Times posted a bunch on the article's web page). But as a writer myself I also wanted to know more about Henig's experience writing the article. Having just returned from vacation, she was kind enough to promptly answer my questions -- thanks, Robin! (Follow the link below to read the Q&A.)

Automaton: The details you give about how some of the robots work are fascinating, but "peeking behind the curtain" can sometimes be a disappointing experience, as you write about Leo and the false-belief test. Which made me wonder, were the roboticists you spoke to always forthcoming, willing to reveal the inner workings of their creations? No one tried to keep the "magic" behind the curtain?

Henig: The scientists were good about showing me what the robots could and could not do, but I think there's a chance they saw something closer to "learning" going on than I was able to see -- no matter how many times I asked them, and then the factchecker asked them, to repeat how much of the robot's behavior was programmed in, and how much was something new, I always felt like they were seeing more learning in there than I was able to see. I never could figure out whether the disconnect was because they were overselling or because I was overexpecting.

Automaton: It seems you met quite a bunch of robots and roboticists while reporting the story -- is there any robot, or robotics project or experiment, that you ended up not mentioning because of space/narrative issues but that you found interesting?

Henig: I didn't describe Domo, the robot that appeared on the cover, enough. I loved the way it looked, all muscular and sort of skyscraper-ish, and I also liked what it was able to do, which was grasp items that you put in its hand and follow voice commands to put it on a shelf or to stack it or use it to "make a drink." I never pursued the question of how much of what it could do was rote, and how much was learning. I also didn't describe another robot I saw at MIT, the Huggable, which is basically a teddy bear that moves, partly because I was trying to focus on humanoids, partly because I wasn't all that impressed with it.

Automaton: What about Japan? We always hear that the Japanese are a robot-friendly society, that they are so willing to embrace robots in everyday life and so on. Did any of your sources mention interesting sociable-robot projects in Japan?

Henig: I had the suspicion as I reported this article that I really should have gone to Japan -- not only because the culture is more willing to embrace robots, but because so much of the cutting-edge humanoid robotics work is being done there. I read articles and watched YouTube videos of the robots being developed at several Japanese universities, and it would have been great to see it all in person. But the Times didn't offer me that kind of travel budget, I didn't have that kind of time, and I know nothing about the Japanese language or culture, so all of that would have been an entirely different way to go. If I end up writing a book about sociable robots (not likely, since no book publishers came knocking on my door after the article appeared!), I'd have to work in a section on Japan.

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Automaton

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