A laughing robot might be considered ominous, but would it seem less ominous if it laughed at the right time during a conversation? This is a theory that scientists have recently tested. A group of researchers from Kyoto University in Japan simulated a laughing robot called Erica powered by a conversation-driven AI system.
Since laughter is an integral part of human dialogue, they reasoned, it might be useful to see how people react to chatty robots with whom they can also share a chuckle. Their findings were published last week in the journal Frontiers of robotics and AI.
Artificial intelligence is good at logic, but laugh? Not really. For starters, the researchers recognized that there are different reasons why people laugh, which complicates matters. To make it easier for the AI system, they generalized laughter into two categories: shared social laughter, when the AI laughs in response to human laughter, and happy solo laughter, when the robot laughs in response to a subject or laughs while speaking.
The researchers trained the AI model on how and when to laugh by allowing it to engage in a form of speed dating with male college students. Erica was remote-controlled by an actress who spoke into a microphone and controlled physical movements like nods and other gestures.
Discussions lasted 10-15 minutes and data was extracted from 82 conversations. The researchers recorded the conversations with microphones and cameras, and annotated them according to when social laughter and solo laughter occurred in humans, and how those laughs differed. This data was then used to train the AI system to teach him when to laugh and what kind of laughter to use. They then applied their shared laugh algorithm to existing conversational software and asked 130 volunteers to listen and rate how well the robot simulated empathy, understanding and human likeness.
Overall, the researchers noted that in situations where shared laughter was appropriate, Erica and her algorithm were successful in convincing people that they were paying attention to what was being said. But it had shortcomings and limitations. Erica was good at responding to laughter, but didn’t quite know when to laugh on her own. The researchers wrote in their discussion that this may be because learning how to respond to a prompt is easier than actually understanding why the content of the conversation might be funny.
Whether or not Erica really has human humor is just part of a big project that roboticists and engineers are undertaking: Giving robots social skills. Since 2017, scientists have been working on how to make a robot laugh convincingly (big tech companies like Microsoft, IBM and Meta are also looking at it). A month ago, Italian engineers launched a chatty-capable bartender robot (unfortunately, it’s being shelved for the foreseeable future due to privacy concerns). The idea is that giving robots facial expressions, body language, speech, and the ability to understand and respond to people’s requests will make them more engaging and better at everyday interactions.
But in the end, there can be a slippery slope between a social exchange that feels natural and a weird valley scenario. There are also ethical issues with robots that are too believable. Nevertheless, there are practical reasons to continue working in this area: making talking robots less scary and more accessible by giving them the right human characteristics, experts say, will be particularly useful for integrating them into healthcare one day, hotels or others. service-oriented industries.
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