Ten years ago, I was one of the many parents who stood in line to get the first wave of the first-generation Furbies, those computer-driven mechanical toys that could talk and offer rudimentary responses to children playing with them. Resembling little alien critters, Furbies had their charm. They also could annoy you – big time – as they mysteriously woke up without warning and started whoo-ing and talking. That’s why our family chose to quickly paralyze our little blue-eyed wonder (by removing its batteries). But I still love the idea of this primitive little robot. Which helps explain why I experienced more than a little robot envy, yesterday, at videos of Leonardo, a social critter-droid that Cynthia Breazeal and her colleagues are developing at MIT.

Breazeal was at City University of New York to launch the inaugural World Science Festival event. Her session, Pioneers of Science, offered six prescient New York high-school scientists and engineers a chance to meet and pick the brains of either of two renowned and charismatic researchers.

CYNTHIA BREAZEAL Some robots will become sociable “animals” if this MIT professor has her way. Raloff

Breazeal, one of them, fielded questions from three students – two girls and a boy – who have been actively building robots themselves. So some of their questions were fairly techie, such as how do you decide which sensors to use, or where are the big breakthroughs needed to deliver robots with the independence and problem-solving abilities of R2-D2 and C-3PO. They’re the Star Wars icons that first turned Breazeal, as a child, onto robots.

What Breazeal really liked about the Star Wars machines was their social skills, the ability to read the emotions of people and to create a social relationship with their human masters. This, in turn, has influenced her research, suggesting the development of companionable robots. She offered videos showing how the facial expressions of children could be read by robot sensors and responded to in comforting ways.

One long-term goal might be to allow these mechanical computer systems with engineered friendliness and patience to become peerlike teachers. They might educate preschoolers in a foreign tongue, for instance, by speaking to them in the second-language-of-choice as kids play with their robot on the living room floor. The teddy-bear-like Leonardo or his kin could gently correct kids if they used the wrong article or verb form.

Some of the best questions to Breazeal came from some especially young members of the audience. A girl – perhaps 7 or 8 years old – asked: “Will there ever be a robot smarter than us or that can do the same things as us?” Breazeal ducked that one, telling this disarming child to grow up, do the research, and report back to the MIT team.

A boy, perhaps 10 or so, asked what’s the point of designing robots that can, as Breazeal says, “go in your living room.” The boy conceded as how these could be cool, but then asked are they really necessary if they can only do what people already do.

“It’s a good question,” the MIT researcher said. She then went on to explain that as people are living longer, the ratio of the elderly in society is growing. In Japan, for instance, they’re predicted to soon represent one third of that nation’s population. Unless Japan wants to turn its entire economy over to caring for its seniors, its society – and many other Western economies – much find a way for great shares of the elderly to remain independent as long and as inexpensively as possible.

Having a sort of electronic pet that responds to their emotions (with physical features – smiles or puzzlement or surprise) based on their owner’s tone of voice and facial expressions might go a long way toward limiting social isolationism. Unlike real pets, Leonardo and his furry buddies could talk, wouldn’t die if their owners forgot to feed them, and wouldn’t soil the carpet if their owners lacked the mobility to walk them outdoors every few hours.

Breazeal says these might also serve as pets for hospitalized children for whom real animals might pose allergic or hygienic risks.

Of course, the audience question that really caught Breazeal by surprise came from a senior citizen himself: Do you think robots will eventually reach the degree of sociability that humans will fall in love with them or have sex with them? Oops…this was an R-rated issue being raised in a forum for families with young children. Ever the pro, Breazeal responded saying “There’s a book on that: I’ll let you read the book.”

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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