Just on the heels of the announcement of Pepper, the talking robot offered by Softbank and Aldebaran Robotics, Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation unveiled two humanoid robots that are “staffing” the museum. One of the robots, called Kodomoroid, appears to just read from scripts. The second robot, known as Otonaroid, seems to be more of a conversational robot that can engage in spontaneous dialog. The robots were designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University.
There’s a video of the news conference where the two humanoid robots were unveiled. It’s difficult to judge from the video just how capable of a conversationalist Otonaroid might be. Based on Ishiguro’s other work with androids, it seems that his focus is more on the appearance and movements of robots rather than on their conversational abilities.
Otonaroid and Kodomoroid are reminiscent of the virtual human twins Ada and Grace–named after Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper–that answer visitor questions at the Museum of Science in Boston. I wrote about the twins in an earlier post that described the work of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). The ICT has been creating virtual humans for well over a decade and developing a framework of technologies to support all of the capabilities that a virtual human needs to be convincing, including conversational speech.
If I had to choose who to interact with, the Otonaroid and Kodomoroid robots or Ada and Grace, I’d probably pick Ada and Grace. Talking to a virtual representation of a human seems less creepy than interacting with a doll-like robot that’s supposed to very closely mimic human appearance and behavior. Ada and Grace are able to talk to visitors and answer questions, but I’m not sure if their conversational abilities far surpass those of Otonaroid. We’ll have to await more evidence to make a judgement.
What will win out in the future: virtual humans or physical androids? I suppose there will be a role for both types of artificial intelligent companions and assistants. But both will certainly need conversational abilities if they’re to have enduring success in the marketplace.