Robots Should Start Out As Babies

Andrew Meltzoff, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and a co-director of the school’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences Meltzoff recently worked with a team of roboticists and machine-learning experts to explore a strange and compelling question: What if robots could learn the way human babies learned?

To test what they built, the researchers arranged two experiments. In one, a robot would learn to follow a human's gaze; in the other, the robot would learn to imitate a human moving fake food around a tabletop.

In the first experiment, the robot would learn how its own head moved, and assume that the human’s head was governed by the same rules. It would then observe the movement of the human’s head, including the direction that person was looking and what the person fixated on, and mimic those movements. In the second experiment, the robot experimented with moving food-shaped toys around on a table. Not only did the robot mimic the human—pushing the toys, sometimes sweeping them off the table top—it also occasionally used different means to achieve the same end result...

By emulating human development, Rao and his colleagues believe that robots will be able to learn progressively more sophisticated skills just by watching and imitating other humans and robots.

“We are convinced that bringing together the roboticists and developmental psychologists may allow us to combine the best of human learning and the best of machine learning to the benefit of both,” Meltzoff said.

“I’m trying to teach the roboticists to think like a baby. And I mean that in a good way.”

Science fiction writer Henry Slesar envisioned this development many years ago, in his 1958 short story Brother Robot:

Feb 6, 1997:
This is a day twice-blessed for me. Today, at St. Luke's hospital, our first child was born to my wife, Ila... when I saw her this morning, I could not bring myself to mention the second birth that has taken place in my laboratory. The birth of Machine, my robot child...

As time goes on, little Mac, the robot baby, is developing beautifully:

At four months, Fitz is developing along normal lines. His little body has gone from asymmetric postures to symmetric postures, his eyes now converge and fasten on any dangling object held at mid-point.
As for Mac, he is developing even more rapidly. He is beginning to learn control of his limbs: it is apparent that he will walk before his human brother. Before long, he will learn to speak; already I hear the rumbles within the cavity of the soundbox in his chest.
(Read more about Slesar's robot baby)

If you're curious about what baby robots might actually be like (they're a bit creepy, in my opnion), take a look at Affetto Child Robot With Realistic Facial Expressions, which also has links to more stories about baby robots.

Via The Atlantic; see also the paper A Bayesian Developmental Approach to Robotic Goal-Based Imitation Learning.

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