June 19, 2017 12:40 pm JST

This opinionated robot thinks you should order noodles

Kyoto lab develops AI tech that could transform chatbots into trusted advisers

TOKYO -- Robots are notoriously bad conversationalists. Ask one a question and the most you can expect is a simple, wooden response.

Until now.

Japan's NTT Communication Science Laboratories has developed artificial intelligence technology that enables our electronic friends to not just have chats, but offer their opinions, too.

Its programming includes, among other things, being able to argue for or against a viewpoint presented by whoever is speaking with it. 

If, for example, a human tells the system, "I prefer urban areas over rural areas when it comes to living somewhere permanently," it might agree, saying, "Yes, there are a lot of different services available in urban areas," or, "Urban areas are more convenient to live in."

Conversely, the robot might offer a counterpoint, saying, "But you can lead a healthy lifestyle if you live in a countryside."

The Kyoto-based research institute envisions introducing the technology at nursing homes and stores selling travel packages. It believes that by using AI to help robots be seen not as cold and emotionless but instead as trusted comrades, people will be more willing to use them in business and in their daily lives.

A typical human conversation involves an estimated 2,000 unique pieces of knowledge per topic. The technology developed at the Kyoto lab can organize that knowledge and meticulously compile it into a discussion structure in the same way that humans do, enabling the robot to adapt to the flow of the conversation and offer its opinions.

Building up a knowledge base large and complex enough to be able to offer opinions takes a lot of time, and this presents a big hurdle to commercializing the technology. But the lab's efforts represent groundbreaking progress toward making robots our trusted friends and advisers.

Filling a void

A chronic labor shortage at Japanese nursing homes has left many facilities understaffed. While robots have been introduced at these centers to help keep the elderly residents company, their limited conversational skills make many people reluctant to communicate with them.

But AI-based robots capable of engaging better with humans could change that. 

If a care-facility resident were to ask, for example, "What do you think I should have for lunch today, rice or noodles?" the robot might reply, "I think the noodles would be more suited to this hot weather."

By making that little leap from stock response to opinion, the robot might inspire the person -- who otherwise may not get many opportunities to interact with others -- to strike up a conversation.

NTT Communication Science Laboratories, along with a lab headed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor of robotics at Osaka University, have had early success in trial discussions between chatbot-equipped robots and humans.

The institute hopes to speed the commercialization process by cooperating with companies and other entities.

(Nikkei)

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