Tank is a receptionist. He's competent at his job, greeting visitors at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science and giving directions. But sometimes he can be whiny and not all that helpful.
Ask him how he is, and you'll get an earful: Tank, it turns out, was a CIA operative in Iraq before launching a new career in the service industry.
There's another unusual thing about Tank: He's not human. He's a robot. He looks like a Shop Vac with a flat panel monitor for a head. But his face is human and expressive, and his eyes move from side to side.
To communicate with him, people type their messages on a keyboard, and he responds in a smooth monotone. After the chat, he leaves them with these parting words of wisdom: "Next time your computer isn't working, don't hit it. We have feelings, too."
Five minutes with Tank, and one starts to believe it's true. People tend to humanize their machines. They've been known to yell at their computers when they malfunction, or at least talk to them.
In another Carnegie Mellon project, Jodi Forlizzi, a researcher in human-computer interaction, is studying the way families behaved when a robotic vacuum cleaner was introduced into the household. She is an associate professor of design and human-computer interaction and A. Nico Habermann Junior Faculty Chair of Computer Science at CMU.
The study involved six families in the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg areas. Half were given Roombas -- a robot vacuum cleaner made by iRobot -- and the other half were given Flair handheld upright vacuums.
Dr. Forlizzi monitored the families' cleaning habits over a year. The families with the Flair showed little or no change in the way they cleaned, and some lost interest in using it. But the robot changed routines. In most households, women had handled the bulk of the cleaning chores. But men and children got interested when they could use the Roomba.
"One of the things that was really interesting was that people with the Roomba cleaned more, and more members of the family cleaned. And they changed the type of cleaning they did," Dr. Forlizzi said. People typically clean up spills and spots when they happen and save bigger cleaning projects for regularly scheduled intervals. People tended to do more on-the-spot cleaning with the robots.
Many treated it like a member of the family. One woman caught herself saying "excuse me" when she bumped into it. One teenager kept the vacuum in her room. Two families named their robots: One was Robby, and the other Manuel, after the butler in the TV series "Fawlty Towers."
Another study at Georgia Tech found that many owners named Roombas, dressed them in costumes or would show them off to friends.
Last August, Jennifer Roche of Greenfield bought a Verizon LG Chocolate 3 cell phone and christened it Ike, after the character from the video games "Fire Emblem" and "Brawl." She put the character's picture on the phone's screen.
"That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Ms. Roche says. "It didn't take long for me to stop referring to Ike as a phone. Everyone knew and referred to my phone as Ike, and instead of calling Ike an it, Ike was a he. When I would misplace him I would say, 'I can't find Ike' and have even called him by name while looking for him."
Sadly, Ike passed away suddenly a few weeks ago, Ms. Roche said. Her new phone is named Ike V2, or Ike the second. "But this phone is nothing like my Ike."
The ways people react to robots is teaching computer and robotics scientists valuable lessons about how to make technology more user-friendly -- and more human.
Which brings us back to the roboceptionist Tank, who along with his siblings Grace and Valerie is part of a family of social robots developed at Carnegie Mellon.
The university's Social Robots Project investigates human-robot social interaction and long-term "relationships" between human and machine. The robots are designed to perform practical services, such as giving visitors directions. But they also are given personalities.
While Tank is a product of the robotics and computer science departments, he crosses disciplines. Students in the drama department develop an ongoing story line and write dialogue for Tank. The soap opera/serial stories help reinforce the evolving character and compel people to keep up with what's new. In one chapter of his life, he was excited about an upcoming date. It didn't go well, and the robot was depressed the following week.
"When a robot has a personality that evolves over time, it makes a big difference in how people respond to it," said Reid Simmons, a Carnegie Mellon research professor in robotics.
If someone types in a swear word or is abusive, Tank will be in a bad mood. When that happens, visitors react to him differently. Regulars familiar with the robot will stop and chat, while strangers will avoid the robot.
Dr. Simmons has spent a lot of time observing the interaction between Tank and students and staff. People tend to interact with the robot in small groups, bringing friends to check out the latest chapter in Tank's life, he says.
Humanizing technology is important, especially when developing robots to work with people who aren't used to interacting with technology, such as the elderly. Medical-service robots could help care for frail seniors -- reminding them to take medications, helping with physical therapy exercises at home or navigating with automated wheelchairs or walkers. "If you're going to be putting robots in those situations, you need the technology to be very friendly and nonthreatening," Dr. Simmons says.
Interactive computer technology also is working with the young. CMU's Project LISTEN (Literacy Innovation that Speech Technology Enables) uses computers to tutor elementary school children. Students read aloud to the automated tutor, which senses when they pause or stumble over words, and helps them through the problem passage. Aimed at helping struggling readers, it also rewards success with verbal praise.
The computer tutor is effective partly because of its personality. LISTEN researcher Joe Valeri compares the relationship to that of grandparent and grandchild. "It's a little hard of hearing and it's just really patient. It's not going laugh to at you if you read something wrong. The kids respond positively to that."
For more on Tank and the Social Robots Project, visit http://roboceptionist.org
Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 22, 2009 4:00 AM