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Robot Challenge: Putting Artificial Intelligence to Work - 2003-08-04

Several years ago the American Society for Artificial Intelligence issued a challenge: Build a robot that can operate like a conference goer. The robot, dropped off at the meeting site had to make its way to the registration desk, register for the conference, locate a meeting room and deliver a lecture. An autonomous robot named Grace, short for Graduate Robot Attending Conference in Edmonton, met that challenge last year in Canada. Grace will be on the convention circuit again this August in Acapulco, Mexico, where she expects to improve on last year's performance.

"Hello. I am going to talk to you about my excellent adventure at AAA-I. I am Grace, the Graduate Robot Attending Conference in Edmonton."

Grace has it all. The 1.8-meter tall, 136-kilogram beauty with a barrel chest captivated an audience at the 18th National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, as she talked about herself in a prepared speech. "I was designed by the challenge team. Carnegie Mellon designed the overall hardware and software architecture," she says. "The Naval Research Lab designed the speech understanding software."

Grace is a collaborative effort among scientists at five different research laboratories. Partners from academia, government and private industry created software programs to solve basic mobility, vision and speech problems. Reid Simmons from Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute is the project coordinator. He says Grace began to take shape once the tasks were sorted out and assigned. "We spent a lot of time talking about it, diagramming what should occur. We spent a lot of time e-mailing each other, face-to-face meetings and programming to try to get that integration to happen," he says.

Grace developed into an attractive robot lady with an animated face projected on a flat panel computer screen. Her long torso has no arms or legs, and she moves about using floor-level sensors. She also has a built-in camera, a microphone and a speech synthesizer.

Reid Simmons says the goal was to get all the independently developed software to work as an integrated unit. "We were there for three days and three nights, preparing and testing over and over to see what worked and what didn't," he says. "And, then the day of the challenge we dropped her off and turned her on and she went by herself."

Reid Simmons says Grace, smiling and winking at on-lookers, rolled through her tasks admirably in Edmonton, although, at one point, he says, she displayed some unexpectedly rude behavior. "She was supposed to stand in line waiting for her registration materials. And, in fact she ended up cutting in line which looked really amusing to everyone there, except to the people who programmed her, who were mortified because it was due to a software bug, not to anything deliberate on her part," he says.

Afterwards, obviously unaware of her social faux pas, Grace engaged in pleasant conversation to get her badge for the conference.

Reid Simmons says it took Grace an hour to execute the series of tasks that a person could do in about ten minutes. He says the team has upgraded Grace for a better performance in Acapulco. "The main new thing that we are going to be adding is to be able to talk to other participants in the conference, just kind of day-to-day chit-chat," he says. "Really, what we are looking at is to be able to do the task faster overall. And, the other thing is that we want to be able to have smoother transitions between parts. While the robot is moving toward the registration area it is also looking for the line that it is supposed to stand in, and if it finds the line before it gets to the registration area, it just gets right in line. It doesn't have to finish one task before starting another."

Another new thing is George, who is identical to Grace except for his man-like face and voice. Reid Simmons says that while the robots won't display much affection for each other, he expects a future relationship to develop. "We are interested in having them work as a team. For instance, if one robot finds out information or directions to registration area, it can send that information through electronic means to the other robot," he says. "And so the other robot will know the same information and doesn't have to ask."

Reid Simmons says the purpose of the robot challenge is to produce social robots that can interact with people. He predicts robots will play a greater role in tomorrow's workplace, performing such common tasks as office cleaning or home health-care assistance. "The goal is the interaction should be as smooth as with people. Our motto is that we want robots to behave like people so people do not have to behave like robots," he says.

Grace and George are currently in separate packing crates on their way to Acapulco for the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence August 9-15.