14.1. The Human Response

All this occurs in a chapter entitled "It's 2001 Already" which may rouse your curiosity about Kismet's abilities. The robot's "body" is nothing but a "head" mounted on a mobile platform. Its dominant feature consists of two realistic, naked eyeballs, which are accompanied by rough indications of ears, eyebrows, and mouth. These are all moved by small motors.

Kismet (who has been featured in virtually all the major journalistic venues) is widely advertised as a sociable robot. Brooks tells us that it gets "lonely" or "bored" due to a set of "internal drives that over time get larger and larger unless they are satiated." These drives are essentially counters that tabulate, in relation to time, the number of interactions the robot has with moving things, or things with saturated colors ("toys"), or things with skin colors ("people").

Kismet also has a "mood," which can be affected by the pitch variations in the voices of people who address it. Brooks speaks of the automaton as being "aroused," "surprised," and "happy" or "unhappy" the emotional state in each case being another name for a numerical parameter calculated from the various environmental signals the robot's detectors are tuned for. Despite Brooks' easy references to conversation, Kismet is not designed to reckon with the cognitive structure of speech, and its own speech consists of nonsense syllables, pitch-varied to suggest emotion.

So the typical scenario has Kismet patrolling a hallway, detecting motion (probably a person), and approaching the moving object. Its detectors, software, and motors are designed to enable it to make appropriate eye contact and to engage in emotionally suggestive, if otherwise vacuous, conversation. First encounters with Kismet tend to be marked by surprise (genuine, at least on the human side), which leads to all sorts of interesting and peculiar human-robot interaction.

This, in turn, seems to provide the developers with great satisfaction; if people respond to Kismet in some way as to a sentient creature, then Kismet must somehow be a sentient creature "not quite" HAL, as Brooks modestly allows, but apparently close enough for government (or MIT) work.

We are led back, then, to Brooks' observation that "Kismet is alive. Or may as well be. People treat it that way." This, as nearly as I can tell, is just about the entire substance of his argument that robots are living creatures. He periodically acknowledges that his own robots currently lack certain creaturely capacities, but, hell, people sure seem to regard them as alive, so what's the difference?

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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