GRACE Robot Team Meets the Challenge

8/14/2002 - 43-02r
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A highly successful collaborative effort in robotic technology between NRL and university and industry partners won accolades from fellow researchers, garnered technical achievement awards and brought media and public attention to advances in the field at the annual conference of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), held recently in Edmonton, Canada. NRL, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Northwestern University, Swarthmore College and Metrica TRACLabs demonstrated how a collection of hardware, software and sensors could work together to exhibit human social skills.

AAAI annually holds robot competitions in several categories, allowing teams to demonstrate best attempts at solving common tasks in a competitive environment. In a competition called the Mobile Robot Challenge the NRL-CMU team entered "Grace" (short for Graduate Robot Attending ConferencE), a six-foot drum-shaped robot with a digitally animated face and a female persona.

Grace's assignment was to autonomously navigate her way from the lobby of the conference hotel to the AAAI conference registration counter, sign in, find her way to the elevators leading to the conference rooms, go to the podium and deliver a talk about herself. Along the way, Grace would engage in casual conversation with conference attendees, saying things like, "Could you please tell me how to get to the registration desk." Grace could then take directions and then reach intermediate goals such as needing to get to the elevators by following those directions.

The contest objective, first announced at AAAI's 1999 Mobile Robot Challenge, was to raise the bar for intelligent robot behavior by creating "social robots." In what conference organizers envisioned as a 10-year effort, such machines would be capable of interacting with people on human terms, not only engaging in conversations but also knowing how to conform to social etiquette, like standing patiently in a line at a registration desk.

The difficult issue this year was the integration. "A lot of research issues come out of trying to get very different systems to work together," says Alan Schultz, the head of NRL's Intelligent Systems section, and leader of the NRL team.

Grace completed her task in little under an hour without assistance from her human team. Periodically, she did have difficulty understanding people, which the researchers attributed to the noisy environment at the conference. But throughout, Grace remained patient and persistent, and polite, with only one small glitch. When getting in line to register for the conference, Grace interpreted a small space between people as the end of the line and inadvertently cut her way into the line.

Built without "arms," which would have required the addition of mechanical engineers to the team, Grace had to depend on the kindness of strangers to accomplish tasks such as opening doors, pushing elevator buttons or pinning on her conference badge. "Could you pin the badge to me?" Grace asked the person behind the registration desk. "I'm afraid I'm all out of hands."

After negotiating her way to the conference room, Grace gave a talk entitled, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," where she "spoke," using a generated voice, about her software and the integration effort. At the close of her talk, Grace thanked the audience and quipped, "I'm going on vacation. See you in Acapulco." Acapulco is the site of the next AAAI conference, where the research team hopes to address more of the research issues, including giving Grace the ability to answer questions posed by the audience.

Carnegie Mellon developed the software for mobility, getting on and off elevators, standing in lines. NRL's Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence developed the algorithms for natural language understanding, integration of speech and gestures, and for dialogue generation and intelligence for interacting with people to find its way to the registration desk. Swarthmore developed the ability for the robot to find the registration sign, and Northwestern University developed the system that allowed Grace to present her lecture. TRACLabs developed a vision system for the NRL to use for recognizing gestures and for tracking the presence of humans.

Schultz notes, "Although attending a conference does not sound like a hard task to a human, it has many hard research issues of importance to the Navy. Most everyone has heard about unmanned vehicles in the news. The problem is that currently, it can take anywhere from three to ten humans to control a single unmanned air vehicle, for example. We are trying to make the vehicles more intelligent, with more autonomy, and make the interfaces more natural so that a single soldier can work with many vehicles."

The NRL contribution is the result of research funded by the Office of Naval Research and DARPA IPTO office.

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