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Robots get friendly

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Professor Pausch says we should think of virtual humans as akin to Jethro Bodine on the old "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show. With Jethro, "you realize you're not dealing with something that is very smart," in common-sense ways, he says. Though Jethro is kindhearted, "and he will help me in any way he can," he must be asked for his help in careful, simple ways that he can understand.

Virtual people are like that, Pausch says, with one huge difference. "Valerie can also do superhuman things," like never forgetting anything and being able to immediately access the Internet and other databases to find answers to questions.

Peter Plantec, author of "Virtual Humans: Creating the Illusion of Personality," sees virtual humans as just now on the cusp of being truly useful. He's convinced that they are going to play a huge role as teachers.

"The traditional way of teaching is on the way out," says Mr. Plantec, whose book encourages people to create their own virtual people on the Internet using off-the-shelf software. The more virtual humans that are built, the more we'll discover their potential, he reasons.

While books are outdated the moment they land on desks, virtual teachers can be constantly updated with the latest information, he says. Not only do they not "burn out" like longtime human teachers, they can be replicated to work one on one with students, creating a special bond with each one. They remember what students have learned and don't let them move on until they have mastered the material. If a student is having trouble, the virtual teacher can try various techniques to explain the material, including putting visual aids onscreen. And through dialogue with each student it can learn what incentives to use to motivate him or her.

As the language skills of virtual humans improve, robots also will provide companionship. "A lot of people create almost a friendship with some of these virtual humans," says Monica Lamb, a programmer from Alberta, Canada. "It's really interesting to see."

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