Anthropomorphic Computing

May 2011
By Bryan Bergeron

While the prowess of the IBM Watson super computer is old news, its appearance on the Jeopardy show is worth some reflection. The producers of the show — dealing with the need to pull in a home video audience — had to provide something other than a box for the Watson persona. In addition to the blue globe with strands of light, there was a robotic finger to press the button. Although a handicap for a computer that could simply connect via a serial cable to the button circuitry, the mechanical linkage was deemed necessary for the viewing audience to relate to the robot. That is, the consensus was that the finger was needed to make the computer seem more like a human competitor.

This anthropomorphizing of computing isn’t new, but Watson served to highlight the relevance of the technique as necessary for the acceptance of computers and computer technology. Additional examples of this practice can be seen in applications ranging from telemedicine — the practice of medicine over the Internet — to teletutoring — instruction via the Internet.

For example, in telemedicine, a one-on-one conversation between a patient and physician requires little more than a Skype setup with an inexpensive webcam and broadband connection. For higher resolution connections, there are a variety of commercial teleconferencing services from the likes of Cisco and others.

Nonetheless, if you make the robotic trade shows, you’re bound to come into contact with one of several robotic doctors on the market. These are little more than teleconferencing services on a human-sized robotic platform (Google ‘Mobile Unit Robot Doctor’). There are no hands or arms, but the head is a flat panel, normally containing a video of the physician’s head atop a torso. According to the marketing material from these developers, patients relate better to a roving doctor that has some semblance of a human versus a computer monitor by the bedside.

As another example, consider teletutoring. Need a private tutor to help you or someone in your family with math homework? No problem. There are teachers in India with a Ph.D. in mathematics ready to help via teleconferencing. No time to drive to a school to receive private music lessons? No problem there either. It’s easy to find a guitar teacher online who’s happy to provide private lessons via a Skype connection.

I don’t have any problems interacting with my guitar instructor through a laptop, perhaps because I’ve developed a connection with him through personal interaction. However, some educators feel that the teaching process is more effective if the teacher has more of a physical presence. This is where robotics comes in.

There’s a trial underway in 21 elementary schools in South Korea where English instruction is provided through remotely controlled robots. Relatively inexpensive English teachers in the Philippines control the wheeled, three foot tall robots. Children see the avatar representation of the teacher’s face on the flat panel head, and the teacher can see and hear students. Hopes are that the robots developed by the Korea Institute of Technology (KIST) prove less expensive and less problematic than English teachers. In many rural areas of Korea, it’s difficult to entice English teachers to stick around, in part because pay is better with private students in the large cities.

According to preliminary reports, the children are more accepting of a robotic teacher than of a much less expensive webcam and monitor perched atop a desk. It remains to be seen whether the results justify the added costs of the anthropomorphic platform.

Do you have an idea for how robotics can enhance the human-computer interface? Perhaps an online recipe book that not only provides a list of ingredients and cooking instructions, but that can lend a hand with chopping the onions or moving heavy pots and pans? I’d consider one that loads and unloads the dishwasher. In all seriousness, robotics undoubtedly has a place in making computing more accessible and acceptable. The challenge is identifying the application areas most in need of an anthropomorphic interface. SV

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