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UCLA

Machines are people, too

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By Jack Feuer

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM


What is it about Truman that makes him so special? Maybe his people skills: "He's everybody's friend," says one acquaintance. Maybe his flair for conversation: "That's why women like him," explains another admirer. In fact, "I love him," gushes a female fan. But she's doomed to disappointment.

Truman is not human.

Hook up with a Socialbot

Learn more about robot life. See Truman online at socialbot.com.

He is a socialbot, the first "socially adept" robot created by UCLA instructor Dario Nardi. Socialbots like Truman (who have human faces, expressions and gestures, and "live" in the computer) carry on involved conversations with whoever is "speaking" with them via a keyboard or mic. It's a startling — and effective — way to demystify programming.

In Nardi's honors course, Artificial Intelligence, undergrads in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences and theater learn how to construct their own 'bots that mimic human responses. "The most surprising thing about the class," Nardi says, "is that students say, ‘Oh, I don't have any programming experience,' and invariably, it's [those students] who do the very best."

Students script their 'bots to fulfill a specific function (or "case," in the course's parlance). Fourth-year English major Miriam Razi, for example, had no computer programming knowledge before starting the course. But she built a 'bot last March that she calls Mr. Right. His case: "create the perfect first date by helping [the user] choose the right flowers, the right meal, etc."

The inspiration for socialbots sprang, fittingly, from an episode of the science-fiction show Sliders in which the main characters encounter a group of androids. "Our normal expectation is that androids would be logical and lack emotion," Nardi says. But the droids on the show "had really good social and emotional sensibilities. That struck me as a nice way to step outside the stereotypes. What if androids or robots had social skills instead of chess-playing skills?"

Nardi's first 'bot was built for his graduate dissertation at the State University of New York, Binghamton, in 1997. He began teaching the AI honors collegium at UCLA in the fall of 1999. He was named by the Faculty Committee on Educational Technology to receive the 2005 Copenhaver Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology.

"I'm skeptical that we'll have super-smart androids in my lifetime, but we'll certainly have more computing," Nardi concludes. "It takes out the magic a little bit, but also the naiveté and fear [of computers] goes away."

It's also just a helluva lot of fun. Students have put on plays starring themselves and small, wheeled screen-faced 'bots that speak and move to visual and audio cues, including such epics as "Robot Wedding Ceremony," in which a female Bruin named Jamie realizes what apparently is every woman's dream: She "marries" Truman.

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