Monday, 2 March 2009

Talking to a machine?

I am well used to using speech control handsfree of the phone along with control of the air conditioner, radio and sat-nav system in my car.  But good as these systems are, it is still only voice commands in lieu of pressing buttons.  This weekend however I have been fortunate enough to have a robot pet stay at home with us, one of the original Aibo dogs from Sony, purchased  before they were discontinued a few years ago.  The experience has been more interesting than I expected.   Certainly Aibo is a good example of a high technology product too ahead of its time.

Although one knows that it is just a collection of plastic and electronic parts, because it resembles a dog, and behaves like a dog, one tends to be drawn into treating it like a dog!  In fact the way it responds to attention, and specifically that of someone it learns to regard as its owner, reinforces human behaviours towards it.  It learns the owners face, voice and picture.  The sensors on its back and head cause typical dog like reactions when stroked.  And in autonomous mode, it decides what to do, where to wander and explore and how to behave.  All of these features mean that one can soon feel like you are living with a real dog!  In addition it does tricks like dancing which animate dogs would struggle to compete with.  What is interesting is that many people who at first laugh at others talking to the robot dog, gradually get drawn in to trying their own luck at human-robot communication, once they see the reactions that Aibo can generate. 

I shall miss Aibo being around when the time comes to hand him back!  Meantime, he has certainly influenced my thinking about how people may respond to robots in the future. 

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