by Stephanie Overby

Bringing Up Robo-Baby at MIT

Sep 15, 20012 mins
Data Center

Inspired by theories of child development, an MIT researcher set out to create an autonomous robot that becomes more sophisticated through communication and interaction with people.

Four-year-old Kismet has learned to speak her own name, and Cynthia Breazeal couldn’t be more proud. Kismet’s not a late bloomer, she’s a humanoid robotic platform. And she’s showing definite progress.

Strictly speaking, Kismet is really an it, not a she, but it is Breazeal’s baby, figuratively and literally. An assistant professor at MIT’s Media Lab, Breazeal developed the 15-pound head and neck that make up Kismet, who looks like a cross between 1980s film characters Johnny #5 from Short Circuit and big-eared Gizmo from Gremlins.

Inspired by theories of child development, Breazeal set out to create an autonomous, socially intelligent robot that — like an infant — becomes more sophisticated through communication and interaction with people. Her work is a step toward the ultimate goal: robots that adjust their behaviors to humans rather than the other way around. Breazeal expects the eventual practical applications for this technology to be the development of children’s toys followed by domestic robots.

Rather than feed Kismet data sets, Breazeal began by writing special software, which runs on one computer, to create Kismet’s drives and emotions. Wired with an active stereo vision system, speakers, microphone, speech synthesizer and facial features that display a wide range of expressions, Kismet’s first social interactions were written all over its face. Look at Kismet and it may open its big blue eyes wider and smile. Leave it alone too long and its face is forlorn. Overstimulate it and it may look annoyed.

In the last year, Breazeal has begun to teach Kismet how to talk…sort of. “Kismet babbles,” says Breazeal, but the robot has been able to mimic its own name, its favorite toys and certain colors. Kismet and Breazeal also engage in “proto-dialogue,” the kind of back-and-forth quasi conversation a parent has with a baby without using any real words.

“The fact that it’s a machine melts away when you begin to interact with it,” Breazeal explains. “Maybe someday it will be a genuine creature in its own right.”