Teaching “cute” little robots to speak will help researchers better understand language acquisition among human infants, reports Caroline Lyon and the Adaptive Systems Research Group at University of Hertfordshire.
The researchers have put their cutest little bot, charmingly named DeeChee, to work for a study of the baby-talk transition from babble to words, which occurs in wetware-type infants from six to 14 months of age. By programming robots to act like babies, researchers can save a lot of time over the real thing. Without diapers to change, or pacifiers to fish out of dark corners, volunteers were able to teach the robot simple words in record time.
In the experiments, human volunteers were tasked with teaching DeeChee through repetitious instruction in normal speech, just as adults teach children in real life. At the start of the experiment, DeeChee was programmed to hear syllables and understand just three words: “well done” and “good.”
As reported at Phys.org, “Because the study relied on the human volunteers speaking naturally, Lyon said it was crucial that the robot resemble a person. DeeChee was programmed to smile when it was ready to pay attention to its teacher and to stop smiling and blink when it needed a break. (Though DeeChee was designed to have a gender-neutral appearance, humans tended to treat it as a boy.)”
Lyon and her team were investigating just one aspect of the complex process of language acquisition, the sensitivity of language learners to the statistical distribution of linguistic elements. Since the stream of phonemes used by instructors varied by sound and frequency, DeeChee was programmed to parse syllables into words based on the feedback from his teachers. The robot was great at concrete terms, such as “green” or “house” but was not so great at more abstract concepts such as “and” and “if”, which cued teachers to spend more time on the words that got the fastest results.
‘”When we asked people to talk to the robot as a small child, it seemed to come quite naturally to them,’ she said. ‘ When they talk to a bit of disembodied software, you don’t get the same response.’” Some of the teachers were much better at teaching the robot than others, for reasons yet unknown.
Check out the video. Maybe you can watch it through, but it makes me crazy. Is it wrong to want to blow up expensive scientific equipment with firecrackers? Because I want to blow up DeeChee with a couple of M-80s, or beat it with a wooden shoe or something, since it’s such a creepy substitute for a real baby. Plus, when it grows up, its going to take some human’s paycheck, too. See the video, here.