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Japanese Robot Actroid Gets More Social, Has No Fear of Crowds

This android can handle interruptions, and talking with groups of people isn't a problem either

2 min read
Japanese Robot Actroid Gets More Social, Has No Fear of Crowds

Actroid-SIT, a lifelike robot from Japanese firm Kokoro, hasn't received as much attention as her cousin  Geminoid F, which happens to be a copy a real woman. But while Geminoid F is a teleoperated robot, Actroid-SIT can function autonomously, talking and gesturing while interacting with people. In fact, researchers have recently demonstrated how improvements to Actroid's behavior can make it look smarter and more expressive than your average android.

Actroid now makes eye contact and gestures in the direction of a person trying to speak to her, allowing it to adeptly handle crowds of people. To develop the new behavior, researchers from Nara Institute of Science and Technology studied how individuals and groups interacted with the robot. Based on their observations, they focused on two new features, which they call "interruptibility" and "motion parameterization," hoping to improve human-robot interaction.

The first feature lets Actroid-SIT to handle interruptions in a graceful way. In their human-robot interaction experiments, the researchers noted that interruptions occurred about 26 percent of the time. For example, the human switched topics or handed off the speaking role to someone else. The problem is that despite these interruptions, the robot would obliviously carry on until it finished its spiel. Not very socially elegant!

With the new “interruptibility” feature, the robot can immediately end its current topic and elegantly transition to the new response. Those few seconds count—people interacted significantly longer with the robot when it was interruptible.

Who are you gesturing to?
The researchers also tested Actroid-SIT with a "motion parameterization" system. This means that her 18 gestures, like “pointing” or “waving”, adapt to the location of the speaker, making the person feel like the robot is really paying attention to him or her.

So even though talking with the Actroid is still far from a natural conversation, the researchers say this improvement makes a big difference in how people perceive the robot. Participants called the android more friendly, sensitive, sophisticated, and warm when the new gesturing system was used, compared to a normal gesturing approach.

Take a look at this video to see how people react to her, and how Actroid now can handle even a mob of pesky schoolchildren. 

“A Gesture-Centric Android System for Multi-Party Human-Robot Interaction” by Yutaka Kondo, Kentaro Takemura, Jun Takamatsu, and Tsukasa Ogasawara of the Nara Institute of Science and Technology was presented early this month at the Human Robot Interaction 2013 conference in Tokyo.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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