- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

PITTSBURGH — She might not be paid, but Carnegie Mellon University’s newest staff member does all that a typical receptionist should: gives directions, answers the phone — even gossips about her boss.

“Valerie” is considered the world’s first robot receptionist with a personality, university officials said Wednesday. The blond roboceptionist interacts with people by talking about her boss, her psychiatrist and her dream of being a lounge singer.

“We wanted to give her an underdog character, struggling to make it in a world of humans,” said Kevin Snipes, 26, a graduate student in drama writing, one of four writers who came up with Valerie’s fictional character. “After a while on the job, she gets testy. But she can be charming, too.”

The school-funded project is the result of a 21/2-year collaboration between Carnegie Mellon’s computer science and drama departments with a goal of creating a socially skilled robot that engages people. Officials say the robot has potential commercial applications, and the drama department may incorporate it in a musical cabaret — despite her limited tone and pitch.

“She has no idea she’s awful,” Mr. Snipes said.

Valerie is a drum-shaped contraption with a digitally animated face that appears on a computer display, perched in a custom-made booth at the entrance of a computer science hall.

With her ability to detect motion, she greets visitors as they approach. Type in a question on a keyboard and she dispenses directions around the Pittsburgh campus and fills visitors in on the weather.

Eventually her creators would like to install face and voice recognition, and make Valerie more lifelike by taking her “face” off a flat-screen monitor.

Valerie has her limits. Visitors have to type on the keyboard to communicate with her, and she understands only simple questions.

“What we don’t have is a robot with the type of understanding people [have about their surroundings],” said Reid Simmons, research professor at the university’s Robotics Institute. “It’s creating illusions that this robot is really more socially aware than it is.”

Most of Valerie’s software was based on Mr. Simmons’ autonomous robot named Grace, short for Graduate Robot Attending Conference, which has competed the past two years in a mobile robot challenge hosted by the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. That challenge is to build a robot that can move safely and naturally among people.

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