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Robots get friendly

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"Pleasure is important," adds Randy Pausch, codirector of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon. Computing, he says, used to be about speed and low error rates, what he calls "Industrial Revolution thinking." But if companies strive to make their workers and customers comfortable in other ways, why not in the way they encounter computers?

"If I'm going to access information, what are ways that I can do that that will be more pleasurable?" he says.

A robot with highs and lows

Valerie, a talking head displayed on a computer screen, aims to be just such a pleasant experience. The school's drama department has created a "backstory" for Valerie, tales of her personal relationships, her highs and lows, that she'll share with passersby if they ask. Her storyline will be constantly updated in an effort to get people to form a relationship with her.

In early testing, Professor Simmons and his colleagues have quickly seen Valerie's limitations. If someone asks, "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" she'll look in her database and say she can't find it, he says. "There's a lot of cultural knowledge that she obviously doesn't have. If somebody is really trying to push the system, it typically doesn't have to get pushed very far before it breaks," Simmons says, meaning she has to reply, "I don't know what you're talking about. Why don't you ask me what I do know about?"

Studies have shown that expectations are higher for such virtual people than, say, a faceless search engine like Google. If it fails to return useful information, humans assume that they're at fault and have entered the wrong information. But if a human-like face answers with a non sequitur, people think it's dumb. Television and movies depicting futurist, human-like robots also may push some people's expectations sky high.

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