A history of the Social Robots Project from Xavier (1993) to Tank (2005)

Xavier actually precedes the beginning of the Social robot Project. The robot base was bought in December of 1992, and the rest of Xavier was built by a grad student class in the spring of 1993 under Reid Simmons. Xavier replaced an old robot called "hero." Xavier was better and smarter, so was a "super hero," thus was named for Charles Xavier of "X-Men" fame. The goal was to have the robot compete at the AAAI Robotics competition in Seatle that summer, and Xavier did compete. The competition involved arranging boxes in a room; Xavier was the only robot that lifted the boxes, rather than pushing them. From late 1995 through 1998, Xavier was often wandering through Wean Hall telling bad knock-knock jokes. This allowed researchers to develop and refine navigation programs that allowed the robot to move through Wean Hall and know where it was without modifying the building. Xavier replaced an old robot called "hero." Xavier was better and smarter, so was a "super hero," thus was named for Charles Xavier of "X-Men" fame.

Amelia was purchased in August of 1995 and worked with Xavier. Amelia had an arm, which was used in some of Dave Touretsky's work modelling the way animals learn through operant conditioning, and by Stephan Waldher doing work in gesture recognition. In '95, though, most of the work was being done to improve navigation, so Amelia was named for Amelia Earhart, who is best known for getting lost.

In 1998, in the Robot Learning Lab, we created the robot Minerva. Built on a borrowed B-18 from Real World Interface, Inc., we added a mechanical face and had the robot giving tours for two weeks in the National Museam of American History (part of the Smithsonian) for two weeks. That robot had to be personable because it dealt with hundreds of people each day. Minerva was named for the Roman goddess of wisdom.

After that project, the face of Minerva was changed and integrated into the first nursebot, Flo, who appeared on the Today Show on December 31st, 1999, with the robot Xavier and of course Katie Couric. Research with Flo lead to funding for a second nursebot, Pearl. Flo was named for a famous nurse, Florence Nightingale. Pearl was named for the pearly sheen of her head.

The goal of the nursebot project is to develop mobile, personal service robots that assist elderly people suffering from chronic disorders in their everyday life. The nursebots at to be autonomous mobile robot that "live" in private homes of a chronically ill elderly people. The robots provide research platforms to test out a range of ideas for assisting elderly people including social interaction. A huge number of elderly people are forced to live alone, deprived of social contacts. The project seeks to explore whether robots can take over certain social functions.

Problems with the nursebots' servo-driven heads lead Reid to think that an animated picture head on an LCD screen would have much fewer problems. An LCD screen was added to Amelia, and the robot Vikia was born. Vikia was named from the acronym, Very Intense Know It All, because she had a tendancy to dominate conversation. This is because the robot actually has little understanding of what humans are saying; by keeping control of the conversation, it was hoped the robot's lack of understanding would be better hidden.

When the AAAI Robot Challenge (have a robot attend the conference, doing the various tasks an attending graduate student would do), Vikia became Grace, from the acronym Graduate Robot Attending ConferencE. Some changes were made to her appearance, to allow for different equipment used that first year. Grace attended the conference, having to ask individuals where to register, then get into line at the registration booth. Upon registering, Grace took the elevator to the second floor of the conference center to an assembly room where she gave a talk about herself which included power point slides.

Finally, the Roboceptionist came about. The idea had been floated by Reid some years before, but the resources weren't available until recently. With a newer version of the type of robot that is Amelia/Vikia/Grace, a booth built by the School of Drama, and scripts and software from various sources, the robot receptionist Valerie was created. During the work day, Valerie would greet people at the main entrance to Newell Simon Hall. She is able to give directions to offices or other buildings on campus, forcast the weather, or talk about herself and her "experiences." After a year and a half, Valerie's identity was changed to Tank. This happened because the School of Drama wanted to write scripts for a different character. Essentially, though, the functionality of the robot is the same. Well, new capabilitites are added as time goes on; for instance, Tank can provide a map when giving directions. That now appears on the screen in the side of the booth.