'Baby' Robot Learns Language Like The Real Thing

Jun 23, 2012
Originally published on June 23, 2012 11:51 am

A baby robot has been born. Now, with little DeeChee's help, researchers are studying how babies transition from babbling to forming words.

Dr. Caroline Lyons of the University of Hertfordshire is one of the computer scientists who helped design DeeChee the robot. She tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon that humans are also critical to their experiments.

"One of our ideas is that you only learn to speak by interacting with another human. So we brought in a lot of ordinary participants and just asked them to teach DeeChee the names of shapes and colors."

As one might expect, not everyone is a great teacher. The study, published by the Public Library of Science One, puts it diplomatically:

"Some participants were better teachers than others: some of the less good produced very sparse utterances, while other talkative participants praised DeeChee, whatever it did, which skewed the learning process towards non-words."

Along with the study, researchers posted a video of a participant teaching DeeChee.

Lyons says the experiments, which last just eight minutes, are intended to simulate a focused, therapeutic learning session, rather than the gradual learning babies do in their everyday environments.

DeeChee started out knowing most of the syllables in the English language, as Slate reports.

"As humans talk, DeeChee tracks the number of times different syllables are used. It then uses the more common sounds to recognize words, which it can then speak."

The robot keeps a record of the syllables it hears and speaks, producing data for the researchers.

DeeChee has white plastic skin and a smile of red lights. Its hands can grab and gesture — and the participants respond to its human-like features.

"You can see how people do enter into the spirit of the thing," Lyons says, "and they do tend to talk to DeeChee as if it was a small child."

Wired Magazine explains that the lifelike design of humanoid robots like DeeChee is not just for the participants' sake.

"Many researchers think certain cognitive processes are shaped by the bodies in which they occur. A brain in a vat would think and learn very differently than a brain in a body."

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Teaching a baby to speak is more art than science. It begins with babble and almost like magic the child says mama and dada, then no, uh-oh, mine, especially mine. But sometimes children struggle to learn to speak. A team of linguists, computer scientists and psychologists in Britain think robots might help explain why that happens.

They've created the world's first baby robot, DeeChee; white plastic skin and a smile of red lights and articulated hands that grab and gesture almost like an infant. Now, scientists hope that DeeChee's silicon brain will help explain what's going on in the minds of human babies. We're joined now from BBC Studios in Luton, England by Dr. Caroline Lyon, one of the computer scientists who helped design DeeChee.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DR. CAROLINE LYON: Hello. Nice to be with you.

SIMON: Well, how do you teach DeeChee to speak?

LYON: Well, we've brought in a lot of ordinary participants and just asked him to teach DeeChee the names of shapes and colors. And to begin, with the robot can only babble. It just produces random babble.

DEECHEE: (Babbling) No.

LYON: And then as the conversation progresses, what they come out with begins to resemble what the teacher's been saying.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit. This is a woman volunteer teaching colors and shapes to DeeChee.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And then we have a red circle.

DEECHEE: Red balls, green (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What about a green heart then?

DEECHEE: (unintelligible) green.

SIMON: That almost sounds like Julie Andrews teaching the Von Trapp kids "Do-Re-Mi."


LYON: Well, you can see how people do enter into the spirit of the thing. And they do tend to talk to DeeChee as if it was a small child.

SIMON: We - I hope you'll sit still for us to run a little experiment by you that we ran on our own, because one of producers here has a 13-month-old daughter. And he tried to do the same experiment that you folks did with DeeChee with his daughter Charlie.

PRODUCER: Green circle.

CHARLIE: (Babbling)

PRODUCER: Good, good. Close. Can you say green?

CHARLIE: (Screaming)

SIMON: Aw. That's pretty cute, isn't it, doctor?

LYON: Well, that's sweet, yes. Of course, one of the things we have to remember is that human babies are in a speaking world every hour of the waking day. So, when we were teaching, it was more like a therapeutic session perhaps, where you're actually trying to teach rather than the baby picking up what it hears a lot of the time.

SIMON: So, have you learned something already from DeeChee?

LYON: Well, the main thing that we've done in our work is that we've looked at a known feature of tiny children that they are sensitive to frequencies of different sounds. And we've made a practical demonstration about how this sensitivity can help them learn words.

SIMON: Dr. Caroline Lyon, computer scientist, University of Hertfordshire. Thanks very much for being with us.

LYON: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.