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Robots get friendly

Robots are acting more like people. Will our attachments eventually become too strong?

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Later this month Valerie will go on duty behind the reception desk at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Sciences. Besides doling out information and directions, she'll chat about her ever-changing personal life. If you introduce yourself, she'll remember you. If you ask about the weather, when she meets you again she may bring up the subject.

Valerie, in case you haven't guessed, is a robot - one in a long line of increasingly sophisticated machines. Of course, computers and their physical manifestations, robots, are already deeply embedded in our lives. In some sense, ATM machines, self-service gas pumps, and TiVo video recorders serve as rudimentary robots.

Now, scientists are pushing to make these machines more sophisticated and humanlike, both in appearance (see story below) and intelligence. Hollywood visions of intelligent, self-conscious machines - R2D2 of "Star Wars" or David, the robot child in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" - remain a distant dream. But robots are expected someday to become tireless service workers at fast-food restaurants, hotel front desks, and so on, laboring cheerily 24/7. They'll also be infinitely patient teachers as well as companions for the lonely.

Some experts worry that attachments may become too strong (see story, page 18), subjecting people to manipulation by clever programmers or unnatural reliance on machines for companionship. But those working in the field agree on one thing: The way we communicate with an onscreen face (sometimes called a "chatbot") or a fully released robot is becoming friendlier and friendlier - even fun.

"This is going to be a very important area for human-computer interaction - having systems that can respond in a more social way and more intuitive fashion," says Reid Simmons, a professor at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. "It makes the interaction more enjoyable if they have a personality." If a robot cart is delivering office mail, he says, it'd be great if once in a while it cracked a joke or gave you a friendly "hi."

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