SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Teaching a baby to speak is more art than science. It begins with babble and almost like magic the child says mama and dada, then no, uh-oh, mine, especially mine. But sometimes children struggle to learn to speak. A team of linguists, computer scientists and psychologists in Britain think robots might help explain why that happens.
They've created the world's first baby robot, DeeChee; white plastic skin and a smile of red lights and articulated hands that grab and gesture almost like an infant. Now, scientists hope that DeeChee's silicon brain will help explain what's going on in the minds of human babies. We're joined now from BBC Studios in Luton, England by Dr. Caroline Lyon, one of the computer scientists who helped design DeeChee.
Thanks so much for being with us.
DR. CAROLINE LYON: Hello. Nice to be with you.
SIMON: Well, how do you teach DeeChee to speak?
LYON: Well, we've brought in a lot of ordinary participants and just asked him to teach DeeChee the names of shapes and colors. And to begin, with the robot can only babble. It just produces random babble.
DEECHEE: (Babbling) No.
LYON: And then as the conversation progresses, what they come out with begins to resemble what the teacher's been saying.
SIMON: Let's listen to a bit. This is a woman volunteer teaching colors and shapes to DeeChee.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And then we have a red circle.
DEECHEE: Red balls, green (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What about a green heart then?
DEECHEE: (unintelligible) green.
SIMON: That almost sounds like Julie Andrews teaching the Von Trapp kids "Do-Re-Mi."
LYON: Well, you can see how people do enter into the spirit of the thing. And they do tend to talk to DeeChee as if it was a small child.
SIMON: We - I hope you'll sit still for us to run a little experiment by you that we ran on our own, because one of producers here has a 13-month-old daughter. And he tried to do the same experiment that you folks did with DeeChee with his daughter Charlie.
PRODUCER: Green circle.
PRODUCER: Good, good. Close. Can you say green?
SIMON: Aw. That's pretty cute, isn't it, doctor?
LYON: Well, that's sweet, yes. Of course, one of the things we have to remember is that human babies are in a speaking world every hour of the waking day. So, when we were teaching, it was more like a therapeutic session perhaps, where you're actually trying to teach rather than the baby picking up what it hears a lot of the time.
SIMON: So, have you learned something already from DeeChee?
LYON: Well, the main thing that we've done in our work is that we've looked at a known feature of tiny children that they are sensitive to frequencies of different sounds. And we've made a practical demonstration about how this sensitivity can help them learn words.
SIMON: Dr. Caroline Lyon, computer scientist, University of Hertfordshire. Thanks very much for being with us.
LYON: Thanks a lot.