Have you ever pondered a better way to get people to make donations to a good cause? How about constructing a talking, dancing robot out of LEGO bricks that engages people in conversation and asks for monetary contributions? I bet you didn’t think of that!
Well, some folks in New Zealand did, as reported in a story by Radio New Zealand News. Shogo Nishiguchi, a Masters student from Osaka University, worked with New Zealand researchers from the University of Canterbury to build just such a LEGO robot as part of an Imagination Station project. The LEGO fireman moves, dances, and does its best to hold a conversation. It also uses light-hearted humor to ask for donations to keep the Imagination Station center running.
The article includes a link to a brief but informative video that provides details about the actual construction of the talking fireman LEGO-bot. The team used the Unity Game Engine for programming the robot’s animation. The fireman includes several actuators, a camera, and a speaker so that it can talk to visitors. Arduino is used to control the robot’s movements.
The team also makes use of a chatbot conversational database that it refers to simply as “Chatbot.” I’m not sure what the exact source of this database is, but it appears to be similar to (albeit more limited than) the A.L.I.C.E. conversational database constructed by Dr. Richard Wallace of Pandorabots. The chatbot database used for the fireman is from the perspective of an extraterrestrial, so it doesn’t work all that well for a firefighter. But it’s probably better than having a robot that can’t engage in even a simple level of chit chat.
The team also used a dialog scripting engine to create the custom dialog for talking about Imagination Station and asking for donations. The humor comes in when the firefighter robot kids potential donors that he only accepts large denomination bills, as in:
‘Oh, I’m sorry – I only accept $50 or $100 notes. No, just kidding, you can put in whatever you want.’
The question on everyone’s mind now is: Will we be seeing talking Santa robots ringing the bell by the donation bucket in front of our favorite retailers this coming Christmas? Maybe the technology isn’t quite ready for primetime yet, but I have the feeling it won’t be long.