Giving artificial intelligence some social capabilities
The Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2016 in Tianjin, China, featured, among other things, a remarkable debut: SARA, the Socially Aware Robot Assistant that could interact with people in a whole new way. Rather than merely replacing the role of a human assistant, or processing and delivering information in an impersonal manner, SARA was different: intuitive, friendly, engaging and designed to “collaborate” with human users, recognize and respond to their facial expressions, learn preferences, and improve task performance based on the users she encountered. She was also programmed to learn certain social cues, nodding her head as a user spoke, and understanding different intonations.
A half year later, in January 2017, the project was presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where it was the only demo to be featured in the Davos Congress Center. SARA served as a virtual personal assistant, offering attendees information about the sessions being presented, introducing them to relevant fellow attendees, recommending places to get food, and more.
Initially, SARA served as a virtual personal assistant with a specific application—offering help at the conference and interacting with guests. She was able to learn about the interests and goals of global leaders, and then helpfully recommend sessions that they might want to attend. Even better, SARA could use her conversations to build relationships with each person who spoke with her, learning more about their preferences and goals—and having done so, she could improve task performance in future conversations by offering even more personalized help.
She was the creation of the Articulab, a small team based at Carnegie Mellon University whose mission involves studying human interaction in social and cultural contexts as an input into computational systems, which in turn help us better understand human interaction. How do people communicate with technology, and how might that communication be enhanced over time? Cultivating social bonds are key, just as they are crucial between people. As the Articulab team has noted about SARA: “Rather than ignoring the socio-emotional bonds that form the fabric of society, SARA depends on those bonds to improve her collaboration skills.”