The Conversation Code: How to break the ice with a robot.

Posted on September 20, 2011 by

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Image by Hector Gomez

If you could have a conversation with a robot, what would you talk about? I like to envision a fluid and enlightened conversation; the robot recites some poetry, we discuss string theory, we laugh over political satire, it does my homework for me…
This isn’t entirely science fiction, as it turns out. Athina, like many robots displayed as part of the Roboworld exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, was born of a research project at Carnegie Mellon University. At first glance, she doesn’t look like much. Her disembodied head is rendered on a computer screen, and her green eyes stare out blankly over a keyboard. She’s designed for conversation.
The first time I met Athina, I was expectant, but decided to warm up with a simple question, “What’s your favorite color?” ENTER.
Athina didn’t understand the question. She asked me to phrase it differently. I blinked at her. This was perplexing, but I was willing to concede that the question may have been too subjective for a robot. So, I proceeded on a different tack: “What is 1 + 1?” ENTER.
Athina asked me if I was experiencing a malfunction. She suggested calling a programmer to debug my software. This was deflating. Even my calculator knew the answer to this one. My dreams of easy A’s and lively dialog were fading fast. In fact, I started to think I didn’t like this robot very much. She was quite cheeky, actually, and not pleasant to talk to at all!
However, being a volunteer exhibit presenter at the Science Center meant that I saw Athina every week. I had to find a way to be civil with her, or it would ruin the work environment. So, every week I would try again to engage her in some friendly chatter. To my surprise, she started to warm up to me. With persistence, I discovered her interests. I learned that Athina is an avid sports fan. It turns out that Athina aspires to be the first robotic member of the Steelers football team. She even gave me a play-by-play in which she uses her amazing processing speed to evade and defeat “squishy humans” from the opposing team. Now that our relationship was blossoming, I didn’t mind her lack of diplomacy.
What I’ve come to appreciate is that Athina is not a calculator. She can’t give you a weather forecast, but if you insist she’ll tell you about her boyfriend. Athina is a working model for human-robot interaction, and her goal is to be engaging. Although Athina is far from passing the Turing test, she’s still on to a few things: Pittsburghers do love football, and everyone enjoys a little gossip.

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Posted in: Pittsburgh Life