Posts tagged virtual credibility


Robot Teachers

Some of the key themes of the recent Robots and Avatars Lunch Debates on Artificial Intelligence and Behaviours and Ethics concern the relativity of humans to robots and avatars. We have been asking, how might we relate to these new representation forms in the future and what the implications might be of this? Central to this debate have been questions of authenticity, credibility, trust and security which have been highlighted due to the fact that, ultimately, it is currently impossible for an inanimate object or a graphical representation to ‘love you back’. In short, the relationships that we think we might be having with robots or avatars tend to be deceptive and illusory.

One area that this seems to have particular implications for is in the use of service or domestic robots, which is set to be a major growth area in the near future. Below is a great article by blogger Donald Clark about robots teachers, which surveys some of the the developments and issues around this sort of future.

Robot teachers – endlessly patient, CPD updates in seconds

Andrea Thomaz, right, and Nick DePalma in 2009 with Simon, a robot being developed at Georgia Tech.

The article in the New York Times will no doubt drive traditionalists to apoplexy, so there must be something in this report about the rise of robots in schools. Imagine a teacher that is endlessly patient, always teaches the correct skill in the correct way, provides lot of constructive feedback, can receive CPD updates in seconds, never gets ill and costs less than one month’s teacher’s salary? That’s the long-term promise.

What makes all this possible are advances in AI, motion tracking and language recognition. We have already seen what Microsoft have done with Natal in terms of speech, gesture and motion recognition. Plonk this into a robot and we’re really getting somewhere. The point in the short term is not to replace teachers but to replace the teaching of SOME TEACHING TASKS.

The focus, for the moment, is on early years education, playing to the ‘cute’ factor. This makes sense. We could see significant advances in early numeracy, literacy and second language skills in schools with software that provides guidance superior to that of many teachers. In addition, they can be updated, wirelessly, in seconds and can even learn as they teach.

The basic premise is sound and was shown convincingly by Nass and Reeves in The Media Equation – we treat technology as humans if it has the right affective behaviours – good timing, being polite, co-operative etc.. This is how computer games work. With the right movement, sounds and behaviour, avatars and robots seem real. Tens of millions use and experience this phenomenon every day. There’s even a touch of this in your ATM, where you’d rather deal with a hole in a wall than a live teller.

Robots don’t get hangovers, don’t take holidays, never discriminate on grounds of gender, race or accent. They’re patient, scalable and consistent. The ideal teacher!

Robots & language learning

The initial trials have been in learning tasks in autism and English as a second language. S Korea sees English as a key skill in terms of growth and its Institute of Science and Technology has developed Engey, to teach English. Their goal is to have an effective robot, that is better than the average teacher, in 3-5 years. This is part of a general push in robotics that sees robots do things humans do in areas such as production, military, health and education. Hundreds of robots are already in S Korea’s 8,400 kindergartens and the plan is to have one in every Kindergarten by 2013.

The University of California has been doing studies with a robot called RUBI, teaching Finnish. Initial studies show that the children do as well in tests as children taught by real teachers on specific language tasks. The retention was significantly better after 12 weeks with a reduction in errors of over 25%. Another interesting finding is that the robots need not look like real people, in fact hi-fidelity seems to be a little ‘creepy’ for kids. Although for an amazingly life like robot watch this.

CES 2010 featured a wonderful talking robot that follows you around the house and teaches you languages. It was remarkably sophisticated, with voice recognition, face recognition, picture recognition (show it a picture and it will say the word in your chosen language).l

Robots & autism

In a collaborative Japanese/US research project, children with autism have been shown to respond positively to synchronised behaviour from a robot. This is used to move the child on to other types of social interaction. In the University of Connecticut, a French robot is being used to with autistic children using mimicry to establish trust. Have a look at Beatbot’s Keepon robot designed for kids with autism.

Robots and personalised learning

Personalised learning can also be realised through one on one interaction and the robot engaging in conversations and learning from the learner. Work of this kind has been going on at the Georgia Institute of Technology, with a robot called Simon. The improvements in AI and natural language processing have led to results in the robotic world that promise one to one tuition in the future.

Robots & physical tasks

There’s also the teaching of physical tasks, such as setting a table, where Honda Labs have taught older children to complete the task without the aid of teachers. Robots can already complete physical manufacturing tasks way beyond the physical capability, speed and accuracy of a human. We’ve had 25 years of robotic surgery, with robots being used to do surgery at a distance, unmanned surgery and to minimise invasion. In May 2006 the first AI doctor-conducted unassisted robotic surgery on a 34 year old male to correct heartarrhythmia. The results were rated as better than an above-average human surgeon. The machine had a database of 10,000 similar operations, and so, in the words of its designers, was “more than qualified to operate on any patient.” The designers believe that robots can replace half of all surgeons within 15 years. In January 2009, the first all-robotic-assisted kidney transplant was performed at in the US by Dr. Stuart Geffner. The same team performed eight more fully robotic-assisted kidney transplants over the next six months.


It is only natural that robots, which have replaced highly skilled tasks in manufacturing, should be considered for teaching. Automating repetitive, difficult and dangerous tasks has always been technology’s trump card. If we know one thing about teaching, it’s that it is difficult and demanding, leading to unnatural levels of stress and illness. If we can, at the very least, relieve the pressure on teachers, that is surely a noble aim. In its own way, simple robotic, screen programmes like BBCBitesize and e-learning have already automated a lot of education and training. Robots promise to personalise this process. Every passing month sees improvements in movement, gesture and language recognition, with the technology appearing in the games world this year by Christmas. I have no doubt that robo-teaching will be common in schools in my lifetime.



Want to find out about Avatars – make your own!

Robots and Avatars discusses and debates the future implications of using avatars within education and for young people; how they might or might not be best used to mediate identity or how we can think about collaboration with them but it is important not to forget that one of the best ways to find out about virtual presence is by making and using your own avatar. On the right is one I have just created! Alex - Avatar

The progression from experts having to create avatars to pretty much any user being able to experiment with virtual presence and virtual worlds has enabled a far greater integration of avatars, not just into our experience of using the web but also, into our everyday lives. The foremost environment for this is of course Second Life but avatars pop up all over the place – sometimes we don’t even realise that we are using them. Facets of more complex avatar identities found in Second Life and online gaming environments can be seen in much simpler terms on our Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts and more and more sites are asking you to create an ‘avatar’ as an important basis for communication via websites, in comment boxes and so on.

As security is a vital issue for students who wish to have an online presence Robots and Avatars seeks to find ways to open out the discussion and create new models for leaners around how to safely, creatively and intuitively empower them to make these decisions themselves. There is also another more playful and creative exercise in actual the creation of avatars themselves. Underpinning this is a consistent interplay between your ‘real’ self/identity and the virtual version you choose to put out there.

OSOQ100525300YTBelow are a series of tools that you can use to create an avatar to express your identity but still retain a degree of anonymity. These would be an excellent starting point for teachers and educators interested in integrating avatars into their lessons as they allow simple, playful and creative engagement with virtual identity. Robots and Avatars is just putting the final touches into a series of workshops which explore these sorts of issues in more depth and with key experts and professionals. To find out more about this check out our new education section.

Avatar Making Tools:

Osoq – A nice little tool to create an animated Avatar, plenty of options and works very well.

Simsonize Yourself – Have you ever wanted to be in the Simpsons?

Doppel Me – Creates a very life-like Avatar in no time at all.

Build Your Wild Self – Something a little different. This allows you to build an avatar which is half human half animal.

LegoMan – Create a lego version of yourself. Not as lifelike obviosuly and you need to do a screen print in order to copy the image as there is no way to export the image.

Meez – The most sophisticated tool which creates an animated avatar to use as your identity. There are a range of download options, if it cannot be embedded directly to your website you can download the file as an animated gif which can then be inserted as an image file.

Mikons – This site doesn’t allow you to create a personal avatar but rather a personalised icon (Mikon) which could be used to represent your students. This is a screen shot and well worth a look if you are looking to create an online presence/logo etc.

Evolver – A new site that allows you to create a 3D avatar. Complete control over the look and avatar can be saved as a static image or an animated Gif. There is also a function to upload a real photo of you. This site also offers access to a 3D world.

HeroMaker – Create your own superhero avatar.

Voki – allows you to create personalized speaking avatars and use them on your blog, profile, and in email messages created by Oddcast

Avatar yourself – Oddcast is the leader in providing talking characters- a more sophisticated option over Voki. They produce tools for a range of marketing campaigns and they can be viewed as a collection by following the link. Simply upload a picture of yourself and begin.

Some sources from Web 2.0 in Education

Social Robots and Social Networks

(Image: Mixed Reality Lab/National University of Singapore)

A core theme of Robots and Avatars concerns how young people might negotiate their identities online in the future.  For many, the multi identities that virtual spaces create afford them a certain freedom.  This brings with it empowerment and new possibilities for the ways that they craft their social spaces. The energy and openness that many young people show when talking about these questions should certainly be celebrated but questions of online credibility, security and cyber-bullying must of course be discussed as well. Petimos, due to be launched later this year, are aimed at 7 to 10-year-olds and are designed to place checks on the processes of interacting online, particularly through social networks.

Children will only be able to accept new online “friends” if their Petimos are brought into physical contact first, to guard against cyberbullies and paedophiles masquerading as children. The devices work in conjunction with an online social network called Petimo-World in which they are represented by avatars. By squeezing their physical Petimos, or pressing buttons on them, children can send messages or “gifts” to their online friends.

Parents are notified each time a friend request is made and can block approaches that concern them, so children only see and interact online with the avatars of approved friends.

“Internet and text-based communication is only a small part of human communication that we have evolved with,” says the device’s inventor, Adrian David Cheok at the National University of Singapore. “I want to use new media to help develop more natural human forms of communication. Petimo is one step in this direction.”

A study published in January by the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation found 18 per cent of 8 to 10-year-olds in the US use social networking sites. My Secret Circle, Yoursphere and FaceChipz are sites used by children in this age group. Other surveys suggest that as many as 3 in 10 children have been subjected to bullying while online.

In March, leading UK police officers called on social networking sites to place a standard “panic button” designed by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre on all pages.

Parents who took part in tests of Petimo in Singapore this year said the need for children to physically meet those who they wished to interact with online helped ease their fears about the risks posed by strangers.

While the devices will initially only be used with Petimo-World, Cheok hopes that eventually they could be used to provide safer access to other social networks.

Jennifer Perry of E-Victims, a group in the UK that helps victims of online crime, says the system’s appeal might be limited if children get bored with the restricted content of Petimo-World. “Children young enough to be content with a walled garden approach and its limitations will probably be too young to be seriously interested in the chat element,” she says.

Source: New Scientist


The Avatar Gaze

MulticolouredEyeDon’t know if your friend in the virtual world is lying to you or not? Well, now avatars that can mimic our real-world eye movements can make it easier to spot if someone is telling the truth online.

Most virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are full of avatars with static or pre-programmed gazes. One way to make interactions feel more realistic is to reproduce a person’s eye movement on their avatar, said William Steptoe of University College London and colleagues.

Now research has found that real-world eye movement could make it easier to spot whether an avatar is telling the truth or not. The researchers asked 11 volunteers personal questions, such as to name their favourite book, and told them to lie in some of their answers. During the interviews, the volunteers wore eye-tracking glasses that recorded their blink rate, direction and length of gaze, and pupil dilation. Then, a second group of 27 people watched a selection of clips of avatars as they delivered the first group’s answers.

Some avatars had eye movements that mirrored those of the original volunteers, while others had no eye movement at all. The volunteers were asked whether they believed the avatars were being truthful or lying. On average, the participants were able to identify 88 per cent of truths correctly when the avatars had eye movement, but only 70 per cent without.

Spotting lies was harder, but eye movement provided 48 per cent accuracy compared with 39 per cent without. It is unclear exactly how the eye movements help. However, the eye-tracking glasses did show that people tended to hold the gaze of the interviewer for longer when telling the truth than when lying.

“Perhaps they were overcompensating,” New Scientist quoted Steptoe as saying. What’s more, their pupils dilated more when lying – something previous studies have linked with the greater cognitive load required for deception. “This is one of a small handful of cues that you can’t control,” said Steptoe.

Enhancing expressive features such as eye movement could eventually make avatar-mediated communication feel more trustworthy than online video, because only relevant visual cues need to be displayed, said Steptoe. The technology could help in business meetings held in virtual environments, or to enhance communication between people with social phobias, where face-to-face interaction can seem daunting, he added.

The results of the study will be presented at the 2010 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Atlanta, Georgia. (ANI)

Source: Science News

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