“Baby” Robot Learns Human Language

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Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have built a robot with a  creepy resemblance to a human baby. Why would they do such a thing, if not to haunt your nightmares tonight? (Seriously, watch the video if you don’t believe me.) To learn more about how humans learn language, of course!

According to Wired, the robot baby, called DeeChee, is learning English almost the same way a  human toddler would: by listening to human volunteers talk about colors and shapes. Here’s how the research team, led by computer scientist Caroline Lyon, described the project:

“Our work focuses on early stages analogous to some characteristics of a human child of about 6 to 14 months, the transition from babbling to first word forms.”

So, why did they need to build a baby? As creepy as the little fellow is, his resemblance to a human baby is what makes the human volunteers want to teach him to talk. He taps into our maternal or paternal instincts, which is important because, much like a human baby, it takes more than some baby Einstein videos to teach language to a robot. According to Lyon,

“Learning needs interaction with a human, and robot embodiment evokes appropriate reactions in a human teacher, which disembodied software does not.”

As Scientific American reports, DeeChee is programmed to recognize phonemes (sounds that are the building blocks of language) and then string them together, responding to praise from its “teachers” whenever it manages to repeat a word and use it appropriately. In the study, Lyon writes that “It is known that infants are sensitive to the frequency of sounds in speech, and these experiments show how this sensitivity can be modelled and contribute to the learning of word forms by a robot.”

Right now, DeeChee is still learning colors and shapes. Wait til he figures out how to say “I’m sorry, Dave…I can’t do that.”