Sunday, June 17, 2007

Why Toys Should Use Speech Communication

Consider collaborating robots communicating with each other via Bluetooth channels or something like that. I will argue that there is something far more valuable: robots using speech for communication. I have in mind mainly robotic toys, but obviously there are other applications for the techniques I discuss.

What is special about speech? Firstly, it is a medium that enables anyone and everyone in a given area to hear what one is saying. Speech is a broadcast technique. Of course, you could have wireless broadcasts using some part or other of the radio spectrum as a substitute for speech.

What is special about speech broadcasts, as against other broadcasts? One feature is that for human observers, it is so much more fun to hear robots telling each other what to do, or sharing information among themselves.

Then there is something else: speech does not require a prior arrangement or contract, at least among human beings sharing a language. You can use speech to communicate with any stranger, as long as you two share a language. If robots share a human language widely used in the region where they are sold, robots made by one company can talk to robots made entirely independently by another company. Unexpected interactions can result with very interesting results.

Yet another effect of robots using speech communication is that they can also communicate with humans. In the case of toys this would mainly be with children. Game-like situations that could be created with these techniques could have great value in stimulating children to interact, and thereby improve their communication skills.

There are other fun things with these techniques. One of them would be to have the “language skin” learnt rather than “hard-wired” (decided and frozen at the time of manufacture of the toy). By language skin I mean the relatively superficial differences between human languages, such as differences in vocabulary, sentence patterns, pronunciation and accent. One obvious value in making “language skin” learnable is that the learning robot toy would acquire the “language skin” used by the family members of the child owning the toy, promoting the integration of the toy into the family and making it easier for the family members to communicate with it.

It would also give opportunities for the child to “teach” communication skills to the toy, challenging the child considerably to develop his/her own communication skills in the process.

Of course, talking robots are not necessarily restricted to use by children. Lonely people might find talking toys at least as interesting and comforting as pets, particularly if the external appearance and behavior are carefully designed for this purpose.

Another interesting possibility is to interface speaking toys with a cell phone that could be externally visible or hidden in the toy’s body. Then the toy could communicate with people “it knows”, in secret or in public, to share information or to request and obtain information/advice.

Using speech communication with machines for education and for fun is an area with some history. Specially designed IC chips and other hardware/software items are commercially available at different levels of capability. I list three references below:

A Texas Instrument toy consisting of a speech synthesizer and a keyboard, which was demonstrated in 1978.

Robota: Clever toy and educational tool Aude BillardAutonomous Systems Laboratory, School of EngineeringSciences Techniques, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL), 1015, Lausanne, Switzerland

Where to Look: A Study of Human-Robot Engagement
Candace L. Sidner*, Cory D. Kidd**, Christopher Lee* and Neal Lesh*
Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs* and MIT Media Lab**
Cambridge, MA 02139

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