Arts & Culture News

The University of Texas at Arlington's Theater Department Has a New Student — a Robot

Nao the robot is a little over a month old but can already recite poetry as if it feels passion. It speaks with a soft high-pitched voice while it moves with elegant precision.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” it says. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May. And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”

Since it arrived at the theater department at the University of Texas at Arlington, Nao has become a student of professor Julienne Greer.

Greer is an assistant professor of theater and an actor. Her life’s work has been to study how humans interact with other humans, but recently she’s been exploring a whole new territory: How humans interact with machines and the experience involved in understanding this relationship – that’s right, a relationship with a machine. Her specialty is an interdisciplinary research area called theater and social robotics that explores how robots can reflect human emotion by applying traditional acting methods. 

“I know when I stand in front of people, I always introduce myself and say ‘theater and social robotics: isn’t that weird?’” she says. “In reality, in my mind, they completely go together. At least at this point where we are and how we’re building robots, it’s all about performance and how we interact and engage with this machine.”

Nao is an autonomous humanoid robot developed in France and Japan. It can be programmed to have basic conversations with a person and it can even do some tai chi. While it is not able to think and move on its own, Nao still shows glimmers of artificial intelligence in its reactions to other people.

So far, what Greer has learned is that Nao’s body language says a lot to humans when it communicates. As it responds to a “Hello” or “How are you?” it appears as if its paying attention to you. When Nao moves in a fluid, human-like motion, people respond to it. The more human-like its movements, the more people enjoy it, she says.

“Although it is a machine and it could be moving beautifully, you’re still hearing the gear whirling and people don’t seem to have a problem with putting those strange things together, which is aesthetic beauty and yet, machine structure,” she says.

And while theater arts may not be the first thing to come to mind when it comes to robot studies, for Greer there’s a very clear connection. She’s fascinated with the way robots may someday be able to act more natural, not just on the stage but in daily life. In fact, she says this is already happening for people in the disabled community. She has recently been planning to conduct an experiment on the way a group of older adults react to Nao in an assisted living community.

“They’re on the vanguard of this interaction between humans and machines because they’re already living their lives with machines being a part of it whether that is an artificial pancreas or whether that’s a wheelchair,” she says.

During the study, Nao will communicate with participants and recite the first 12 lines of a 14-line sonnet to each participant once a week for three weeks. The participants will then be asked to finish the rest of the sonnet to spark their creativity. Greer cites research that shows how older adults can benefit from creative activities.

“That’s my expertise, so I’m encouraging the participants to act with the robot,” she says. “It’s that interaction that we’re interested in measuring to see if it’s provided some well-being.”

The results may help to create a more nuanced, sophisticated way for a robot to speak to a human. In other words, it can set the path to figuring out how they can be more like us.

“The goal, of course, is to make it as artificially intelligent as possible, so the goal between humans and robots is that humans will learn what that particular human wants and will continue to offer that to them,” she says.

Although it may sound like pure science fiction, Greer says that researchers are already thinking about the possibilities of robots being able to think critically and humans being able to download their thoughts into a machine, perhaps in coming decades.

“I think more and more we’re going to look at substituting machine parts for our organic parts. And, what does that mean? You know, there’s the humanities question. What does it mean when we’re half machine?”

And while there are still plenty of things that Nao must learn about being more like a human, Greer says humans can also learn a thing or two from a robot like Nao, namely a sense of precision, perhaps even patience.

“Since most robots have been programmed with a certain amount of politeness or service, I think that humans can learn to be kinder,” she says. “That non-emotional response might actually help us to filter and look at our emotional responses from a new perspective.”
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Pablo Arauz