Robots embedded at school in quest to bond with humans
TOKYO – Playtime over, a toddler says nighty-night and spreads a blanket on the floor on top of his silver-colored friend.
It is an everyday scene at one US nursery school, where robots are immersed among children to find out what it takes for machines and humans to develop long-term relationships.
The experiment jointly run by Sony is revealing that children, with their open minds, can welcome and even develop emotions toward the robots, leading to new commercial possibilities as machines become smarter and friendlier.
“We adults tend to ask children if it is a toy or a human being, but they are free of such established categorization,” says researcher Fumihide Tanaka, who the dozen toddlers fondly call “IC,” as in integrated circuit chip.
“When I saw a personal computer for the first time, I asked if it was a television set,” the 33-year-old researcher says. “If intelligent-machine technology is successfully developed, a century later people will see the concept just as common sense. This is natural as we are living in a different era now.”
While Sony is undergoing business restructuring and has no plans to develop new models of its iconic QRIO humanoid or AIBO robodog, it is continuing to study artificial intelligence to apply in future electronic products. Tanaka, part of Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories, has been working on the project jointly with the University of California at San Diego, led by Machine Perception Laboratory director Javier Movellan. The children, aged up to 24 months, started spending one hour every day with a 58-centimeter (23-inch) tall Sony biped in March last year at a San Diego school. “Humans are sure to have innate ways to communicate without using a language. We can see this better in children as adults depend on languages,” says Tanaka during a brief visit back to Japan.