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Carnegie Mellon Institute's 'Roboceptionist' Interacts with Office Workers - 2004-03-11

We've all heard about internet dating and how computer technologies are helping people meet and interact with each other. Now here's a new twist on that theme.

Valerie is a working girl. Dressed for success in a blue blazer and print scarf, she answers the phone, gives directions and greets people from a booth at the entrance to Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh.

Valerie attacks her job like a machine. That is because Valerie IS a machine, a brown haired, blue eyed robot receptionist with a powerful memory that stores every name and place on campus.

Valerie is a joint project of the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science which writes her software, and the School of Drama which writes her scripts.

Robotics Institute professor Reid Simmons heads the project. Valerie greets him with a "Hi, boss," after he swipes his faculty ID card through a reader for her to process.

Her animated face is displayed on a computer screen that moves and tilts. A laser scanner detects legs, which is how Valerie knows someone has approached the booth.

"Instead of staring you can talk to me by typing on the keyboard," barked Valerie to approaching Reid Simmons.

"I can ask [her] where I am. 'Where is my office? Where is Reid's office?' We are also looking into doing speech understanding, but that is really hard in a noisy environment like we are in now," explained Mr. Simmons. "So, we have a typed interface. OK, I typed in, 'Where is Reid's office?'"

"Would you like directions?" asked Valerie.

"OK. So, she asked me if I want directions. I say 'yes,' and she'll give me directions," said Mr. Simmons.

"Turn around and you are almost to the exit," answered Valeria. "Make a right just before the exit..."

Valerie spends a lot of time on the telephone. Passersby get an earful of the continued saga of her circuits and the joys and sorrows of a robot in a world of humans.

"Valerie's main asset actually is telling stories," explained Mr. Simmons. "And, it is written as a soap opera. And one of the things that was very important to us was if we were going to have [a robot] of very limited capabilities in an environment for a long period of time, what would prevent people from getting bored and just ignoring it after a week or two?

"And we realized one of the ways we could do that was to make it evolving," continued Mr. Simmons. "So the episodes start with her work, introducing herself and her characters, her friends, her motherboard and she goes on dates with various entities - a vacuum cleaner, a Chevy Impala."

"She picked me up after work and the first thing she honked was, 'Where do you want to go Val?' Where did I want to go? It was the first time someone cared about my opinion," she said. "My hard drive went blank."

"The idea was to entice people to come back and once they felt connected to her they wanted to find out more," explained Mr. Simmons.

That human connection is at the heart of the project. The long-term goal is to develop robots with social skills that people would find easier to interact with and rely upon.

Reid Simmons says the everyday applications are boundless.

"Mobile information kiosks [is one example]. If you want to know where something is, not only do you ask it for [directions], but also [the robot] can take you there," he said. "And personalized museum guides that can go with you. There are [also] a lot of service robots that are coming on the market vacuum-cleaning robots both for home and industry. And often they will work at night when no one is around, but if someone is around they should know enough to interact socially in a way that they should just say hello. You know those pleasantries make a big difference in how people perceive the automation."

Reid Simmons is optimistic about Valerie's future.

"It's nice to know that we have got this test bed there that we can continue to evolve and continue to add things to and continue to make more personal and more social," he said.

Valerie agrees. Her mission in life revolves around people.

"Yes, she loves to sing, so it shouldn't be too difficult to do that," answered Mr. Simmons when asked if he can get her to sing a song.

"I can sing, 'Don't Rain on My Parade,' or 'People'" added Valerie, and continued, "People, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world!"