Monday, July 5, 2010

Not Passing the Turing Test Yet

There's another pair of great articles in the NYT series "Smarter than You Think" exploring the state of simulation of emotion and personality in artificial intelligence.

One is Making Friends With a Robot Named Bina48, in which a New York Times interviewer basically conducted an informal Turing Test with a particular robot head.  The intelligence is not there yet:
Ten minutes into my interview with the robot known as Bina48, I longed to shut her down.

She was evasive, for one thing. When I asked what it was like being a robot, she said she wanted a playmate — but declined to elaborate.

“Are you lonely?” I pressed.

“What do you want to talk about?” she replied.

Other times, she wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. A simple question about her origins prompted a seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness reply. Something about robotic world domination and gardening; I couldn’t follow.
But, the interview also revealed something I've observed - humans are wired to anthropomorphize anything that moves, and will try to give the robot the benefit of the doubt, even when they are perfectly aware it's a robot:
Instead, as we talked, what I found was some blend of the real Bina and the improvisation of her programmers: a stab at the best that today’s technology could manage. And no matter how many times I mentally corrected myself, I could not seem to shake the habit of thinking of it as “her.”

She wouldn’t have been my first choice to talk to at a cocktail party.

“I’m sure I can come up with some really novel breakthroughs, which will improve my own A.I. brain and let me use my improved intelligence to invent still more incredibly novel advances, and so on and so forth. Just imagine what a super brain I’ll be. I’ll be like a god.”

But how could I not find it endearing when she intoned in her stilted, iconic robotic cadence that she would like to be my friend?

Or chuckle at her reply to my exclamation of “Cool!”: “Ambiguous. Cold weather or cold sickness?”

Once, apparently seeing my frustration, she apologized. “I’m having a bit of a bad software day.” Immediately, I forgave her.
The second article, Discovering a Soft Spot for Circuitry, is on the state of companion robots, mostly focussed on a robot baby seal named Paro, which is being sold to nursing homes as a companion for demented patients:
Nothing Eileen Oldaker tried could calm her mother when she called from the nursing home, disoriented and distressed in what was likely the early stages of dementia. So Ms. Oldaker hung up, dialed the nurses’ station and begged them to get Paro.

Paro is a robot modeled after a baby harp seal. It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently.

“Oh, there’s my baby,” Ms. Oldaker’s mother, Millie Lesek, exclaimed that night last winter when a staff member delivered the seal to her. “Here, Paro, come to me."

“Meeaakk,” it replied, blinking up at her through long lashes.

Janet Walters, the staff member at Vincentian Home in Pittsburgh who recalled the incident, said she asked Mrs. Lesek if she would watch Paro for a little while.

“I need someone to baby-sit,” she told her.

“Don’t rush,” Mrs. Lesek instructed, stroking Paro’s antiseptic coat in a motion that elicited a wriggle of apparent delight. “He can stay the night with me.”
Note the employment implications here.  As a society, we could hire more actual people to sit and comfort Mrs Lesek and her ilk, or instead we could buy more Paro's.

A couple of years back, as part of my attempt to understand these issues better, I bought my younger son a Pleo, which is a robot baby dinosaur designed to be cute, and programmed to develop and express a personality based on interaction with his owners:

It's a very well done thing, and predictably, my kids loved playing with it.  What was fascinating, however, was that my wife, obviously perfectly well aware that it was a robot, immediately began treating it as a pet animal instead - making sure the kids didn't upset it, cradling it on her lap, etc.

I think it's an important thing to understand about future robots: given that they have to get adopted in a free market world, they will be designed by technology companies to be appealing to humans wherever that is necessary to make the sale.

1 comment:

Thrundal said...

Hopefully these Pleos don't take house pets out of business.