IN an empty fluorescent-lighted hallway on the second floor of Smith Hall here at Carnegie Mellon University, Prof. Paul Rybski and a pair of graduate students showed off their most advanced creation.
The culmination of two years of research and the collective expertise of 17 faculty members, undergraduates and doctoral students in the Human Robot Interaction Group, it is a robot outfitted with a $20,000 laser navigation system, sonar sensors and a Point Grey Bumblebee 2 stereo camera that functions as its eyes, which stare out from its clay-colored plastic, gender-neutral face.
With Dr. Rybski looking on like a proud parent, a bearded graduate student clacked away at a laptop on a roving service cart, and the robot rolled forward to fulfill its primary function: the delivery of one foil-wrapped Nature Valley trail-mix flavor granola bar.
“Hello, I’m the Snackbot,” it said in a voice not unlike that of HAL 9000, from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as its rectangular LED “mouth” pulsated to form the words. “I’ve come to deliver snacks to Ian. Is Ian here?”
I responded affirmatively. “Oh, hello, Ian,” it said. “Here is your order. I believe it was a granola bar, right?”
Yes, it was. “All right, go ahead and take your snack. I’m sure it would be good, but I wouldn’t know. I prefer a snack of electricity.”
Designed to gather information on how robots interact with people (and how to improve homo-robo relations), the Snackbot has been carefully considered for maximum approachability in every detail, from its height to its color. The snack, not surprisingly, is the central component of that approachability.
“We figured, what better way to get people to interact with a robot than have something that offers them food?” Dr. Rybski said.