A baby robot has been born. Now, with little DeeChee's help, researchers are studying how babies transition from babbling to forming words.
Dr. Caroline Lyons of the University of Hertfordshire is one of the computer scientists who helped design DeeChee the robot. She tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon that humans are also critical to their experiments.
"One of our ideas is that you only learn to speak by interacting with another human. So we brought in a lot of ordinary participants and just asked them to teach DeeChee the names of shapes and colors."
As one might expect, not everyone is a great teacher. The study, published by the Public Library of Science One, puts it diplomatically:
"Some participants were better teachers than others: some of the less good produced very sparse utterances, while other talkative participants praised DeeChee, whatever it did, which skewed the learning process towards non-words."
Along with the study, researchers posted a video of a participant teaching DeeChee.
Lyons says the experiments, which last just eight minutes, are intended to simulate a focused, therapeutic learning session, rather than the gradual learning babies do in their everyday environments.
DeeChee started out knowing most of the syllables in the English language, as Slate reports.
"As humans talk, DeeChee tracks the number of times different syllables are used. It then uses the more common sounds to recognize words, which it can then speak."
Human baby Charlotte, the 13-month-old daughter of NPR producer Tom Bullock, tried the same tests that DeeChee, the robot, does for language-learning experiments. Dr. Caroline Lyons says human babies have an advantage: They spend every waking hour of the day in a speaking world.
Human baby Charlotte, the 13-month-old daughter of NPR producer Tom Bullock, tried the same tests that DeeChee, the robot, does for language-learning experiments. Dr. Caroline Lyons says human babies have an advantage: They spend every waking hour of the day in a speaking world. Tom Bullock/NPR
The robot keeps a record of the syllables it hears and speaks, producing data for the researchers.
DeeChee has white plastic skin and a smile of red lights. Its hands can grab and gesture — and the participants respond to its human-like features.
"You can see how people do enter into the spirit of the thing," Lyons says, "and they do tend to talk to DeeChee as if it was a small child."
Wired Magazine explains that the lifelike design of humanoid robots like DeeChee is not just for the participants' sake.
"Many researchers think certain cognitive processes are shaped by the bodies in which they occur. A brain in a vat would think and learn very differently than a brain in a body."