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April 13, 2009

Cutebots vs AI : Cute vs Capable ? Hello Kitty vs Terminator?

The best science fiction uses artificially contrived situations to avoid resistance to cultural criticism and to invoke the reader's willing suspension of disbelief in order to explore aspects of the human condition. It may be that in this story, design exploits another human condition.

Several major universities spend time and treasure trying to develop autonomous robots that can navigate to a specified destination. They're trying to build very smart machines. The 2007 winner was Tartan Racing, from Burgh fave CMU with their Chevy Tahoe named "Boss". There are clear military applications of such a capability, and that's why the contest is called the DARPA Grand Challenge.

Is building a smart autonomous machine the best answer? Here's a fundamental question: Is it better to be Cute or Smart? Hello Kitty or the Terminator? Daphne or Velma?

Kacie Kinzer takes a different approach: just build a cute robot that asks for help and relies on the kindness of strangers. In other words: leverage the existing embedded social interface, rather than engineer artificial intelligence.

Tweenbot (cute!)In a series of experiments, a TweenBot was released in the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. It's mission was to get to the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. The Tweenbot had no map or knowledge of the park, no GPS, no sensors, and no remote control.BigDog military robot by Boston DynamicsBigDog Army Robot

The robot's flag pennant contains the destination and "I need help". Here's the robot's guidance concept: Move forward in a straight line, constant speed, until you can't. Expect altruistic help, because you're cute.

In New York City, in January, the robots always got through the park to the destination. None were lost, destroyed, or stolen. Nobody called the bomb squad.

This is the actual path of a Tweenbot through the park:
Washington Square Park, actual path of TweenBot
This TweenBot accomplished the mission in 42 minutes, having been helped by 29 separate human interactions.

What's the takeaway? Is it better to be cute or capable?
(Isn't this experiment what high school is all about?)
(1) they're not mutually exclusive
(2) in a friendly social environment, it's good to be cute
(3) in a hostile non-social environment, it's good to be capable
(4) the successful machine will be both

Here's a movie showing one Tweenbot's journey across the park:


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