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Bots: They're only human

REA
Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt attempts small talk with REA  

(CNN) -- Her name is REA, and she's a virtual real estate agent who hangs her shingle in the media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Experimental projects like hers point to a future where bots will do much more than communicate through text.

"We're building systems that can take information and can represent it through speech, through gesture, through facial expression, through posture," said Justine Cassell, the MIT associate professor directing the REA project.

Cassell and her colleagues communicate with REA the Realtor by standing in front of a large screen, from which REA (pronounce REE-ah) stares back. Created in part to study how trust is built into communication skills, REA responds to her human clients by giving tours of virtual homes.

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MESSAGE BOARD
 

In REA's eyes (a few cameras), the person with whom she's communicating is represented by three blobs -- one for the head and two for the hands. These blobs tell her what she needs to know about body language, such as whether a person is present or leaving, talking or listening. REA is also aware of her own internal state -- whether it's her turn to speak and how to behave while speaking.

"I think that it's possible to study human intelligence, to know what it's made up of, to break it down into modules in a sense, and then -- little by little -- to build those modules into machines. And that's part of what I do," Cassell said.

Bot woman
"Female" bot  

But the business of imitating human behavior is still in a very primitive state. The more common form is an Internet creature called an avatar, or bot, which communicates through written word. Humans type in comments and bots display responses.

Bot-creator Artificial Life Inc., in Boston, will continue to produce mute bots for its clients until voice-activated software catches up with text, according to chief financial officer Rob Pantano.

"Too many idiosyncrasies in speech, slang, inflection -- all of these things still continue to slow down the maturation of this technology," Pantano said.

Whether born out of an animator's imagination or based upon a real person using scanned photographs, a bot can have a distinctive personality -- even talking back to and assuming the name of the CNN correspondent reporting on it


Bruce bot  

Bot: Hi, Bruce.

Bruce: Hi, Bruce. Are you really able to think like me?

Bot: We're talking artificial intelligence here, not artificial stupidity.

Bruce: There's no reason to get snippy, Bruce. But really, can bots think like humans?

Bot: Maybe not yet, but we're getting there. Check out what's going on at MIT.

Bruce: MIT?

Bot: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dummy.


So why the need for these human wannabes?

"It really allows for a much more robust experience on the Web, relative to gathering information and being better served," Pantano said. "Typically, (visitors') length of stay on the Web site increases through the interaction with the bot."

Bots greet potential customers, educate them on offerings and direct them to relevant Web pages. And this commercial side of artificial intelligence may be evidence of what spurs its development: the human need to interact with and even trust machines.

"I think in my work that one of the ways in which we elicit trust in a human is to have the machine demonstrate trustworthy behaviors of the kind that humans are used to," Cassell said.



RELATED STORIES:
Part 4: The Real HAL: Artificial Intelligence in Space
December 27, 2000
Is your new AIM pal an artificial intelligence program?
August 29, 2000
Sprint's virtual newsman more than a talking head
May 3, 2000
Virtual news jock Ananova goes live
April 18, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Artificial Life
MIT Media Lab Gesture and Narrative Language Group
MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory


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