by Tom Krazit

Human-Computer Communication

Sep 22, 20032 mins
Enterprise Applications

If, as the book says, men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then the most advanced robots hail from somewhere out by Pluto—at least for now. At an event in May to celebrate the 100th anniversary of MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, scientists talked about the potential for machines that can do much more than assemble cars—if they can clear communications hurdles.

Researchers have made great progress in improving verbal communication between computers and humans, according to several speakers. But a great deal of communication is nonverbal, says Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. A robot that can change facial expressions in response to a person’s tone and expression means it could staff public information booths or check you into a local hotel.

Brooks’s team designed a clown-like robot head with large, pointed ears and huge puppy-dog eyes. Scold it, and it drops its head and pouts. Ears perk up to a question. Praise brings a wide grin.

Not all of the work is in the lab. Outside MIT, Brooks is chairman and CTO of iRobot, which makes the the Roomba automatic floor vacuum. Jokes about dust bunnies and friendly banter are sold separately.