PITTSBURGH — She might not be paid, but Carnegie Mellon University's newest staff member does all that a stereotypical receptionist can do: give directions, answer the phone — and even gossip about her life.
University officials on Wednesday unveiled what it considers to be the world's first robot receptionist with a personality of her own. The blond receptionist, named "Valerie," dons a headset and interacts with people by talking about her boss, her psychiatrist and her dream of being a lounge star.
"We wanted to give her an underdog character, struggling to make it in a world of humans," said Kevin Snipes, 26, a graduate student in drama writing, one of four writers who came up with Valerie's fictional character. "After a while on the job, she gets testy. But she can be charming too."
Socially skilled robot
The school-funded project is the result of a 2½-year collaboration between Carnegie Mellon's computer science and drama departments with a goal of creating a socially skilled robot that engages people. Officials say the robot has potential commercial applications and the drama department may incorporate it in a musical cabaret.
"What we don't have is a robot with the type of understanding people do (about their surroundings)," said Reid Simmons, research professor at the university's Robotics Institute. "It's creating illusions that this robot is really more socially aware than it is."
Most of Valerie's software was based on Simmons' autonomous robot named GRACE, short for Graduate Robot Attending ConferencE, which has competed the past two years in a mobile robot challenge hosted by the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. The challenge is to build a robot that can move safely and naturally among people.
Dispensing advice and aspirations
Valerie the roboceptionist sits in a custom-made booth at the entrance of a computer science hall. With her ability to detect motion, she greets visitors as they approach. Type in a question on a keyboard and she dispenses directions around the Pittsburgh campus and fills visitors in on the weather.
More than that, she tells stories about her life.
Drama writers came up with four story lines based on her psychological therapy, work, social life and career aspirations, which include a singing career despite limited tone and pitch.
"She has no idea she's awful," Snipes said.
From her booth adorned by a Barbra Streisand photograph, passers-by often can hear her talking on the phone with her "motherboard." She recognizes when someone is in front of her and remembers the person's identity. She can switch between tasks from talking on the phone to answering a question.
When asked what she's been up to for the day, Valerie talks about starting her own help line for machines.
Valerie, however, does have her limits.
She is a drum-shaped contraption with a digitally animated face that appears on a computer display. Visitors have to type on a keyboard to communicate with her. And she understands only simple questions.
Eventually her creators would like to install face recognition so people don't have to swipe an identity card for her to remember them. They would like to make her more lifelike by taking her "face" off a flat-screen monitor. And people won't have to type their questions on a keyboard if they can solve the problem of voice recognition in a crowded hall.
Drama professor Anne Mundell said she would like to incorporate Valerie into a future production. Until then, she says Valerie will tell "the story of a robot living in a human world."
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