Helping Humans and Robots Work Together

When Chuck Rich came to WPI in 2007, he brought along a friend. Melvin, the big red robot that Rich designed with colleagues, is a unique research tool for studying Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Behind Melvin’s friendly smile—or the diabolical persona of a computer game nemesis—is sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) programming.

Rich, a pioneer in the field of AI, has spent the last 30 years advancing its use in interactive media and game development, intelligent user interfaces, and human-robot interaction. His overall goal is to improve our interactions with computers by making them more intuitive. His work will improve our experiences with everything from robot helpers to online learning programs and automated telephone interfaces.

This work begins with close observation and analysis of the patterns of human conversation and behavior, including verbal and non-verbal cues. Next, computational models and algorithms must be developed to allow computers to recognize and respond these signals. For example, nodding, pointing, gazing in a certain direction, and making eye contact can support the perception of connectedness and make an interaction with an artificial entity feel more realistic.

At WPI, students are engaged in research sponsored by the National Science Foundation to expand Melvin’s ability to collaborate in interactions. Project teams advised by Rich have written software to control recognition and response behaviors, enabling Melvin to converse and play simple games with a human partner.

Student’s in Rich’s Interactive Media & Game Development classes master the latest software design and programming techniques, such as machine learning, emotion modeling,  and natural language processing, then use them to create their own demonstration games, as well as teaching and tutoring interfaces.  Weekly seminars, open to the entire WPI community, provide valuable opportunities to learn from those who work at the forefront of the gaming industry.

The convergence of advances in robotics, computer vision, natural language and speech processing, and cognitive modeling potential brings us closer to the time when artificially intelligent entities will play an role in our daily life, Rich notes in a recent article in AI magazine. Those functions could be as “human” as assisting elderly and disabled people, motivational coaching for health and lifestyle issues, and helping autistic children learn social skills.

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