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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine

By Duncan Graham-Rowe

A DISEMBODIED HEAD with gremlin-like features is about to be given life in the artificial intelligence department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Named Kismet, the head is a robot that learns about its environment like a baby, depending almost entirely upon benevolent caregivers to help it find out about the world.

Researchers working on Kismet are part of a larger group in the AI department that is building an artificial humanoid called Cog. Kismet is Cog's baby brother, and what the researchers learn while putting the robots together will be shared to speed up development.

Once finished Cog will have everything except legs, whereas Kismet has only a 3.6-kilogram head that can display a wide variety of emotions. To do this Kismet has been given movable facial features that can express basic emotional states that resemble those of a human infant. Kismet can thus let its "parents" know whether it needs more or less stimulation-an interactive process that the researchers hope will produce an intelligent robot that has some basic "understanding" of the world.

This approach of creating AI by building on basic behaviors through interactive learning contrasts with older methods, in which a computer is loaded with lots of facts about the world in the hope that intelligence will eventually emerge.

Cynthia Breazeal, who created Kismet, is giving the robot the same senses as a baby. So far it has only a basic vision system, but Breazeal is developing ways to make Kismet hear and babble like a baby. Its eyes are made of charge-coupled device color cameras that focus best at a distance of 0.6 meters-a visual acuity similar to that of a baby.

Kismet has a repertoire of responses driven by emotive and behavioral systems. The hope is that Kismet will be able to build upon these basic responses after it is switched on or "born", learn all about the world and become intelligent.

Crucial to its drives are the behaviors that Kismet uses to keep its emotional balance. For example, when there are no visual cues to stimulate it, such as a face or toy, it will become increasingly sad and lonely and look for people to play with.

Responding to Kismet restores its equilibrium, making it happy again. Similarly, if its caregiver endlessly repeats the same cue, such as shaking a doll in front of it, it will get bored and agitated. And if Kismet becomes overwhelmed with information, it is likely to tire and fall asleep.

These responses are crucial to the project. Social interaction is always a two-way process: Kismet must be able to show its parents how it feels, so they can respond correctly. The robotic face sports ears, eyebrows, eyelids and a mouth that can move to form baby-like facial expressions such as surprise, fear, interest and so on. "The argument is that many infants have this innate ability so that if you overstimulate or understimulate it, the infant lets you know," says Breazeal. She suggests that when parents respond consistently to an infant they are creating a rich environment for the baby to learn how the social world works, as well as a foundation for its own personality to develop.

Any advances made with Kismet will be passed on to its big brother Cog, the robot brainchild of Rodney Brooks, head of MIT's AI department. Cog is 2 meters tall, complete with arms, hands and all three senses-including touch-sensitive skin. Its makers will eventually try to use the same sort of social interaction as Kismet to help Cog develop intelligence equivalent to that of a two-year-old child.

Kismet is still very much in development, with Breazeal still tuning its emotive responses and working on its sensory apparatus. But she expects learning to start within a year. Will it work? "No one knows what the answer is because no one has done it yet," says Breazeal. "The only existing proof of intelligence is these walking systems in our world called humans and animals. So the case for embodiment is that if we do it right it will probably lead us where we want."

Meanwhile, Cog is getting close to completion. Brooks says all its components will be integrated over the next few months and once they are, he speculates that it can be considered to be an artificial life form.

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