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Socially Intelligent Robots


For many years humans have been fascinated with the notion of lifelike robots, machines that could one day behave, communicate and interact like other live beings, and assist humans with performing various tasks. MIT research scientist Cynthia Breazeal is working on creating that reality. Her research is focused on building “socially intelligent robots” that can interact with and learn from people in a natural and intuitive way.

Breazeal earned a B.S. degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She continued her studies at MIT, where she completed her ScD and MS degrees. During the 1990s, Breazeal built several sophisticated robots with rich sensing capabilities and animal-like degrees of freedom. Her programming is inspired by animal brain and nervous systems. As a Master's degree student, she worked in MIT’s Mobot Lab where she developed “Hannibal,” a small robot with 19 degrees of freedom and more than 60 sensory inputs. She created the robot as an experimental device for microrover research. The focus for the project was mainly to study insect-inspired locomotion control, robust natural terrain locomotion, and fault tolerant behavior.

Later, as doctoral student, Breazeal worked in the Cog Shop in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab where she began working on a robotic creature called “Kismet.” This robot socially interacts with people using para-linguistic cues such as facial expressions, body posture, vocal prosody, and gaze direction. Breazeal employed theories from a range of disciplines including psychology and ethology to program Kismet’s behavioral features. With Kismet, Breazeal garnered a great deal of worldwide attention within the scientific community as well as with the media.

Breazeal hopes that eventually Kismet will be able to develop competencies such as social and communication skills based on what it “learns” from its interactions with people ­ much like an infant learns skills and behaviors during its first months or years of life. One day robots such as Kismet would theoretically be able to communicate with “caregivers” in order to satisfy its own internal agenda, like a human being would.

Applying what she learned through her work with Kismet, Breazeal embarked on a new project recently, a lifelike robot called “Leonardo.” Named for Leonardo Da Vinci, this robot is a collaboration with the Stan Winston Studio, which provides its creative artistry in animatronic characters to combine with Breazeal’s expertise in building socially intelligent robots. The result is a two-and-a-half-foot tall, furry creature that closely resembles a “Gremlin.”

Leonardo has more than 60 degrees of freedom, with the majority of those in its face. Therefore the robot is capable of near-human facial expression. It is not designed to walk; rather Leonardo is built for study of expressive and communicative features. It can gesture and manipulate objects. Breazeal is working on giving Leonardo a computational brain that is “worthy of its body,” with visual feature detectors for objects as well as for people, ability to maintain eye contact, to track objects and to estimate depth. She and her team are also developing a synthetic skin and tactile sensing system capable of detecting pressure and location.

Concurrent with her research, Breazeal is an assistant professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. She is Director of MIT’s Robotic Life Group and holds the LG Group Career Development Chair. She published the book Designing Sociable Robots, in 2002 and is working on a second book that she co-authored, as well as hundreds of papers and articles, and she has several patents pending related to her work.

[February 2004]

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