14.4. Learning from Kismet

In an interview with a New York Times reporter (Dreifus 2003), Kismet's creator, Cynthia Breazeal, remarks that "human babies learn because adults treat them as social creatures who can learn." Her hope for Kismet was that "if I built an expressive robot that responded to people, they might treat it in a similar way to babies and the robot would learn from that."

The Times reporter then asked the obvious question: "Did your robot Kismet ever learn much from people?" This was Breazeal's answer:

From an engineering standpoint, Kismet got more sophisticated. As we continued to add more abilities to the robot, it could interact with people in richer ways. And so, we learned a lot about how you could design a robot that communicated and responded to nonlinguistic cues; we learned how critical it got for more than language in an interaction body language, gaze, physical responses, facial expressions.

But I think we learned mostly about people from Kismet. Until it, and another robot built here at MIT, Cog, most robotics had little to do with people. Kismet's big triumph was that he was able to communicate a kind of emotion and sociability that humans did indeed respond to, in kind. The robot and the humans were in a kind of partnership for learning.

I'm glad Kismet taught Breazeal and her engineering colleagues that bodily expression plays an important role in human communication. But as for the issue at hand: her answer tells us nothing about any actual "partnership for learning." With an all too characteristic slippage between points of view, she answers a question about Kismet's learning by citing only the engineers' learning. This would be all to the good if she could keep the two perspectives distinct and get clear about them. But the whole enterprise depends upon confusion. And so Breazeal concludes the interview by mentioning that she is now working on a new robot, Leonardo. But Kismet, who has been retired to the MIT museum, "isn't gone; it's just now taking the next step in its own evolution through Leonardo."

But what does this mean, "its own evolution"? Presumably Kismet is sitting on a shelf in the museum, or else moving about and pestering visitors. The one thing it's not busy doing is evolving. That is the engineers' task. Apparently, the grotesque illogic of saying that Kismet is evolving is a small matter for someone who has already managed to convince herself that a handful of numerical parameters are signifiers of emotion.

It seems to me profoundly significant that so many people today can routinely characterize the engine rather than the engineer, the design rather than the designer, the speech rather than the speaker, as the subject of evolution. Here is a refusal to face ourselves as creative spirits or as anything more than machines, followed by a projection of our missing selves onto our machines. Such a refusal and projection can only lead, not to the evolution of machines, but to the end of our own evolution.

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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