Nexi raises her large gray eyebrows and asks, says, “May have the ball?” She then extends her black, pointy, three-fingered hand toward the curious elderly woman across from her. She’s not a witch or some kind of monster. And she’s not technically a “she,” though a woman’s voice is used for her speech. Nexi is a robot developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Nexi raises her large gray eyebrows and asks, says, “May have the ball?” She then extends her black, pointy, three-fingered hand toward the curious elderly woman across from her.

She’s not a witch or some kind of monster. And she’s not technically a “she,” though a woman’s voice is used for her speech. Nexi is a robot developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She visited the Milano Senior Center in Melrose this week to allow her developers to conduct research on how she — the robot — interacts with seniors.

Jun Ki Lee, a researcher with the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, said Nexi is an MDS robot — Mobile, Dexterous and Social — meaning that she can move around on wheels (mobile) and pick up objects (dexterous). The “social” aspect comes from Nexi’s unique face, which is modeled after an actual human face, complete with eyes with eyelids, eyebrows and a mouth — all of which helped her land at number 17 on Time magazine’s list of the “Best Inventions of 2008.”

“It — Lee doesn’t refer to Nexi as a “she” — can express human emotions like happy, sad, bored, excited or [angry],” Lee said. “It has facial expressions to express those human-like expressions. When it’s talking, it’s much more expressive than current robots because it has the ability to express human emotion.”

Lee said Nexi was first developed to help find people in disaster sites where it may be dangerous for human beings to go, such as the site of a biological or nuclear attack. Collaborating with a team of helicopter robots, all manually remote-controlled by a person safely sited at a computer, Nexi can be given “high level” commands, such as “search this area,” and report back to the controller when a person in need of help is found.

“And we have a very friendly-looking robot,” he said. “When it goes to disaster sites, it’s much more friendly so when it’s guiding people out of the site, people get less scared and they feel much safer.”

 

How friendly Nexi looks and how well she interacts with people was the specific topic of the study done this past week at the Milano Senior Center. Lee said the team wants to hear feedback from Melrose seniors on the researcher’s attempts at making Nexi more human-like and how that affects people’s interaction with the robot.

“We added a face, so we want to see how important it is in interactions,” he said. “We varied the number of facial features. Sometimes it’s wearing sunglasses to hide the eyes and sometimes not. The eyes can move, so it’s always looking at you … we want to see how people act differently to those faces. A lot of robots these days have a very un-human-like face, like an astronaut with a visor; it doesn’t even have a mouth or eyebrows. It’s not capable of expressing human emotions like Nexi.” 

One woman, who declined to give her name but said she’s a regular at the Milano Senior Center, said Nexi is “interesting” and that other seniors were “intrigued, like I am.”

Asked if she thought Nexi could be used as a senior’s assistant, helping out around the house, the woman said it made her think more of technologies such as artificial appendages and the robots that now do much of the work in car factories.

“To me it’s almost like something I never would have anticipated, but now I would take it very much for granted. Why not?” she said.

Lee has yet to see a case where the seniors “didn’t like the robot,” he said with laugh, but added that some say they have problems when they first encounter Nexi.

“It takes time to get accustomed to talking to the robot because it’s not a human,” he said, chuckling. “They feel a little odd or weird, a little different, but mostly they like the robot. Some people say they wanted to actually have more time with the robot. The interview is less than 10 minutes; it’s very short. People sometimes say, ‘I want to interact longer.’ Most people say that; it’s pretty common — you can see that elders want to interact longer and more, so it’s good for us.”

 

Truly autonomous robots still a dream of the future

Asked if the team members were able to discern any of Nexi’s strengths or weaknesses through the study at the Milano Senior Center, Lee said they confirmed something already known — it’s tough to create a truly autonomous robot.

“The technology is not there yet to freely talk with people,” he said. “The current technology of understanding natural language is very primitive, so it [the robot] only understands what it’s meant to understand.”

Nexi’s pre-recorded voice is that of a young woman, but she can only understand certain sentences and respond with pre-programmed responses controlled by the team. Lee likened it to the “Wizard of Oz,” with Lee himself in the role of the man behind the curtain.

“Later, we want the robot to be autonomous enough to just talk to people,” he said.

Outside of autonomous robots able to work and interact free of human control, Lee said the team is also thinking of cases where a robot controlled by a person remotely can be used to stay in touch with people. An example of such a so-called “telepresence” robot would be a toy stuffed animal that could be remotely controlled by a person, resembling the teddy bear robot in the Steven Spielberg film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

Another robot, Lee said, can be attached to a cell phone, with the cell phone owner’s face appearing on a screen and then controlling the robot.

“So you’re at a different place, but you’re still connected to the robot, so you can talk or interact with people,” he said. “Like for the teddy bear robot, we’re thinking a family communication scenario. I think that’s going to be very helpful for elder people living alone, but who still want to interact with their grandchildren. I think those kind of technologies can help.”

Contact Daniel DeMaina at ddemaina@cnc.com.