Robots Get Language Lessons to Promote Speech

Robert S. Boyd
Contra Costa Times
June 18, 2002

Many parents have had the delightful, sometimes frustrating experience of teaching a toddler to talk.

Now, computer scientists are giving language lessons to mechanical robots, enabling them to speak and to respond appropriately to what they hear.

Such language skills will be needed if robots are ever to reach their potential as humanoid helpers—cleaning house, serving cocktails, stocking grocery shelves, guiding office visitors, and other routine chores.

"It is now becoming possible to have open-ended dialogues with physically embodied robots," said Luc Steels, an artificial intelligence expert at the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris.

In the past 10 years, so-called "intelligent robots" have come a long way. They walk on their own legs, climb stairs, navigate through unknown environments, even play fast-paced soccer matches.

But they are still introverts, with limited ability to communicate with humans or their fellow robots. Teaching them is extremely difficult and progress has been slow.

"It's really very hard," said Tim Oates, a robotics expert at the University of Maryland–Baltimore. "Imagine you are in a foreign country and don't know the language. You can't even tell where a word begins and ends, much less the meaning of the word."

Despite the difficulties, Oates said his current goal is to make a robot follow him around the university campus, gathering and processing information.

"I hope a year from now I can tell it: 'Look out for that trash can' or 'Let's go through that door.' I don't want to be holding the robot's hand," he said.

In five years, Oates added, "I want to be able to say things like, 'Could you go into the room we were just in and bring me the red ball?' If the robot can do that, I'll declare it a success. It's a very ambitious but not unreasonable goal."

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