STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On Mondays we focus on technology and, today, making robots more interesting.
A lot of kids opened their presents yesterday to find robotic toys, which they probably find boring already. Robots are just so robotic. They do the same things over and over again. Some experts are working on ways to make them more engaging, though, and today NPR's Nell Boyce reports on one effort. It's a robo receptionist named Tank, who has a lot of attitude.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
Walk into the computer science building at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and you see Tank. He sits at a desk decorated with Desert Storm camouflage and a photo of Dwight Eisenhower. He has a computer monitor for a head. On the screen is a blue Frankenstein face. When his sensors register your presence, he smiles pleasantly.
TANK: Hello there. What can I do for you?
BOYCE: Type on his keyboard and you can ask Tank the same questions you'd ask a real receptionist. You can ask where to find the office of Reid Simmons, who created Tank. You can also ask Tank what he thinks of Reid Simmons.
TANK: Dr. Reid is my boss. I don't know him very well yet, but don't you think he has shifty eyes?
BOYCE: Shifty eyes?
TANK: And what's up with that hair?
BOYCE: Tank's suspicions about his boss come courtesy of the university drama department. It's all part of an experiment on how to make robots less boring. The answer, Simmons says, is simple. Turn the robot into a soap opera.
Dr. REID SIMMONS: The longest-running shows on television, they're all soap operas. I mean, they just keep going for years and years and years. You know, characters change and the stories change. If we're really going to keep the interest, it's not so much the utility, that--what it does useful, but the fact that it has these amusing stories and that the stories change over time.
BOYCE: Computer scientists turned to Carnegie Mellon's playwrights for Tank's back story and motivations, then worked on ways to program it all in. Tank is their second robo receptionist. The first was Valerie, a spunky Barbra Streisand fan. Simmons says that the students and staff grew very attached to her.
Dr. SIMMONS: When Valerie disappeared after, you know, basically being here for two years, you could see--I mean, the number-one question that people asked was, `Where's Valerie?' Or, number two was, `Bring her back.'
BOYCE: And Simmons expects people to get much more attached to Tank, even though Tank is kind of pathetic. He worked at NASA and failed as a satellite robot. A job at the CIA was also a bust.
TANK: Everyone knows those government agencies all have quotas to fill. I was the token robot on staff. They didn't even give me real duties.
BOYCE: Tank is a loser, but he's important to computer scientists trying to improve how machines interact with humans. If robots will ever become part of daily life, they have to respond more naturally. Tank, for example, has a far more complex emotional life than Valerie ever did. If you insult him or bang on his keyboard, he gets angry.
TANK: I cannot waste my time with you fooling around.
BOYCE: He also has mood swings.
TANK: I'm in a foul mood today. Neary's(ph) recent letter has me really upset.
Dr. SIMMONS: He is a sad figure and it'll be interesting to see, you know, if people feel sorry for him and, you know, are willing to do things to try and cheer him up. Say--I can say, `I love you.'
TANK: You do not even know me.
BOYCE: Simmons says it's already clear that people will spend more time with the robot that has this kind of natural response. He and his team analyzed the thousands of interactions that people have with the robot every month. People often ask Tank things he can't understand. Sometimes college kids just curse at him. But about 20 percent of the time, people are asking questions about Tank's life. That suggests that the soap opera approach is working. And Simmons is planning upgrades that should encourage even more chitchat.
Dr. SIMMONS: What we want to do, especially when there's kind of lulls in the conversation, that Tank will take initiative and say, `Did you hear, you know, my brother's getting married next week?'
BOYCE: Simmons also wants to put in some facial recognition software so that Tank can start recognizing people. His theory is that if Tank is happy to see you, you might be happier to see the robot.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
TANK: Thanks for visiting. Come back and see me again.
INSKEEP: And you can see Tank's friendly face by going to npr.org.