Life lessons from the lifelike

Authors for years have used artificial beings to tell us stories of action (The Terminator), adventure (Star Wars), science fiction (Blade Runner) or comedy (Making Mr. Right).

But a new breed of scientific researchers like Karl MacDorman of the IU School of Informatics at IUPUI is using androids to tell us something different: a story about ourselves. In the future, androids will serve as patient simulators to help doctors, nurses and dentists better learn human responses and better care for patients. Teachers will learn how their students learn, and will help equip those students with the communication skills they will need in their professional careers. Even police officers will learn how to better "read" the people they question, to discover the truth.

"Our work starts with building lifelike androids, but what we're really studying are human beings-what motivates us, how we communicate-or fail to," says MacDorman, who just completed his first year on the informatics faculty.

Processing information

MacDorman calls android science "part of learning how the human brain processes information.

"It's a platform for unifying the cognitive sciences," he adds. It can open a dialog between fields such as the cognitive neurosciences and social psychology. "Each of those disciplines will be able to test new views in their fields by using androids in their research."

Those sciences study from different viewpoints how people perceive the world around them and interact with it. The problem, MacDorman says, is that the cues we use to acquire and process information are so varied-and often subconscious-that it is all but impossible to know what we learn from, say, a conversation.

Does the meaning lie in the words we speak, or in our gestures or tone of voice? Or does eye contact tell us whether-and what-the other person was thinking when she gazed off into space? Examining these variables is at the heart of understanding people, but they are impossible to control when you study one person interacting with another.

"But when we use an android, we can control the factor under study," says MacDorman. "We isolate the android's appearance, or a specific motion, and see how varying it alters human response."

Greater knowledge of how people communicate will help health-care workers better understand a patient's non-verbal cues, give teachers greater insights into students, and so forth.

MacDorman also believes that such knowledge may help people in positions of responsibility understand the importance of their own body language and mannerisms. It doesn't help a patient's mental outlook, for example, if a doctor's words of encouragement are contradicted with the slumped shoulders of hopelessness.

Non-research functions possible

Android science may have other long-term benefits: technological advances have made it conceivable that robots or androids could serve work functions, at such places as information booths or in home health-care settings. Japan, the world leader in the field and a place where MacDorman has worked extensively, already is well down the road toward those functions.

"Japanese people often feel more comfortable asking for assistance from an android or a robot than from another person," MacDorman says, noting they feel especially reluctant to trouble a stranger for help. "That's why Japanese people who are lost would rather ask an android for directions than another person-they don't have to be overly polite to a robot, or feel embarrassed by a faux pas, the way they might in front of another person!"

MacDorman is well acquainted with Japanese social customs, having taught robotics and machine learning at Osaka University for five years. He also attended Cambridge University for his Ph.D., and has worked as a software engineer and chief technology officer in the private sector.

His work in android science is the culmination of a life built around technology. He got hooked on computers early in life-"I saw computers as an art form, but one you can interact with"-and got into robotics in college. "I saw it as an ideal testing ground for my ideas about human cognition."

Building partnerships

Eventually, MacDorman's work brought him to the still-young School of Informatics, a school still marking its turf while it builds partnerships with such diverse schools as medicine, science, engineering and technology, health and rehabilitation services, nursing and more.

"The school is new enough that I feel like I can have an influence on the direction it takes," says the California native. "And people here are excited about the possibilities of working with androids-people in a large number of disciplines."

Because of the expense of building an effective android, much of MacDorman's work relies on external collaboration. But he and others hope the options offered by androids lead to the development of one or more at IUPUI.

"The field will really take off when we find the means to massproduce androids and get them in the hands of the various research teams in the social and cognitive sciences," MacDorman says.

In the meantime, MacDorman considers himself fortunate that his time in Japan gave him hands-on experience, and first-hand exposure to how participants responded to the androids. The work in which he participated, coupled with photography and video of androids in action, give him tools to expand his knowledge base.

Future is open

The future of android science is a story still unfolding, the informatics professor says, in large part because it is so far on the cutting edge that nobody-not deans, not research directors, and especially not those who decide who receives research grants-really knows what lies ahead.

"The future isn't something we can predict, it's something we have to make," MacDorman says. "I believe that androids have much to tell us about being human, but we have to show what we can do in research with androids that we could not do without them.

"As for what the role of androids will be in society at large, that's not something a few experts can anticipate-or decide," he adds. "Just as with the development of the Internet, everyone will get a say."