Published May 26, 2010
She has an expressive, alabaster face, a delicate touch -- and two wheels where her feet should be.
She is Octavia, a brand new robot designed to improve interactions with humans. And at the annual Fleet Week in New York City, the Navy is bringing its débutante out of the lab.
Just don't ask her to dance.
The robot's main mission will be to support and work closely with humans. She's designed to communicate clearly about her goals and abilities, collaborate to solve problems and interact with naval staff. Perhaps that explains the robot's looks.
"She has very expressive eyebrows, eyelids, head movements, and she can even turn her eyes," explains Dr. Greg Trafton, the head of the Intelligent Systems Section at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. On the other hand, she has no hair.
"But she has very expressive hands and fingers" that she uses not only to manipulate objects but also to help convey emotions like confusion and sadness, says Dr. Trafton. So Octavia can respond to humans in human ways, such as raising an eyebrow to reveal skepticism or tilting her head coyly to suggest that she doesn't understand something. More important, she does this autonomously, using a system of sensors and cameras to follow what's going on around her and then thinking and reacting to her environment independently.
"It represents a more subtle form of communication," says Dr. Trafton. "But without these cues you don't get natural behavior at all, and then you're basically interacting with a wooden post."
The research , funded by the Office of Naval Research, is critical to the Navy because if autonomous robots (versus remotely controlled machines) and humans are going to work together in the future, we'll need to be able to trust and understand a robot's reactions. So Dr. Trafton and his team of more than a half dozen researchers have been working with Octavia for over a year and half to get her to think and respond in a way we humans would understand using what they call computational cognitive models (and what we call really smart software).
In fact, Octavia is one of three MDS robots, or mobile, dexterous, and social robots in the lab with facial expressions and human-like responses. The other two are Issac and Lucas -- the former named for the writer Issac Asimov and the later named for the director, George Lucas. Octavia is named after the science fiction author, Octavia Butler.
Her head and arms were designed and built by an MIT spin-off, Xitome Design. Dr. Trafton's team developed the rest, including three separate computers and the artificial intelligence software, which they have been working on for over a dozen years. To get around, Octavia uses a Segway to move.
"But we actually added training wheels on her for the trip so she doesn't do a face plant," quipped Dr. Trafton.
Aside from not being much of a dancer, Octavia also isn't much of a conversationalist -- yet. She'll be talking at Fleet Week, explaining facts about herself and how she works to exhibit visitors, but Dr. Trafton says the natural language software to have her fully converse with humans isn't good enough yet.
Octavia won't be the only piece of futuristic technology on display from the Office of Naval Research during Fleet Week. More than a half dozen exhibits, including an autonomous underwater vehicle for environmental monitoring and an electromagnetic railgun that uses electricity to launch projectiles as far as 230 miles, will be on display at New York City's Pier 88 along the West Side Highway, between W. 47th and W. 53rd streets, and aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) through June 1.