An Afternoon with Leonardo

Not Leonardo the artist. No, not the ninja turtle, either. Leonardo is a gremlin-like robot at the MIT Media Lab who was the main attraction in a series of user studies a couple of weeks ago, one of which I got to participate in.


Leonardo was built for the Personal Robots group (I seem to recall them being called "Robotic Life" at one point), headed by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, to study social interaction with robots. Leonardo can't walk or talk, but he can make a few facial expressions and manipulate a few objects with his eerily lifelike (though not very dextrous) little hands.

The study I was participating in was part of post-doc Andrea Thomaz's research into how humans understand the learning process and how machines can learn from them. She asked me to see if I could teach Leonardo (and if I recognized when I had taught him) to perform a few tasks on a toy box in front of him: pushing a button to change light colors, flipping two switches, and trying to learn the right combinations to open and close the box. Working with Leonardo was a little strange. I'd seen pictures before, but was surprised to find him almost three feet tall (well taller than me when he was standing on a desk). Interacting with him at first felt awkward, but soon I was learning forward on the desk gently urging him to learn what he needed to learn, much in the same way as I might teach a toddler to tie his shoes. He could only respond to a limited set of commands like "Try to flip the switch right, Leo" and to feedback like "Not quite!" or "Good job, Leo!". In the end, I sent him into an infinite loop of switch-flipping (ah, bugs), so my robot-teaching prowess remains unknown. But it was my first time personally interacting with a "humanoid" robot.

And I just noticed now I've been calling him "he" throughout this whole entry. They must have done a good job anthropomorphizing him for me...

At any rate, the study was less about robots than it was about cognition and learning, but I was thrilled to have the chance to check Leonardo out. His command set is limited to whichever program a Lab researcher happens to have loaded on him for the day, so we won't be seeing Leos in our homes pushing buttons and flipping switches for us any time soon. But it was a fascinating glimpse into how I might some day interact with a robot in my house. Hopefully the infinite loops will have been fixed by then.



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