The Kismet project originally started out as a new head for Cog, but became Cynthia Breazeal’s thesis project (she’s now an Associate Professor and Director of the Personal Robots Group). Named for the Turkish word meaning “fate”, the project began circa 1997 and ran to 2003. Although it was not the first expressive robot head, Kismet’s social intelligence was much more sophisticated than other examples (such as those developed at Waseda University or Tokyo Science University), and continues to remain so.
While most expressive robot heads share the same set of behavioral expressions, Kismet can do more than just make faces. It was programmed to seek out novel interactions, without which it grows tired. Movement, bright colors, faces, and sounds attract its attention and satisfy its internal drive.
Just as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out in one his sitcom’s famous episodes, “close talkers” creep us out by invading our personal space. Kismet doesn’t like it if you get in its face; conversely, if you get too far away it will try to draw you in closer. You have to be sitting within the optimum distance for it to comfortably interact with you. And like a baby, Kismet reacts differently depending on how you present it with an object. If you shake an object too quickly right in its face, it will feel threatened. Rather brilliantly, these responses not only feel natural to us, they help to regulate interactions so that the face and object recognition software can work properly.
Each eye contained a color CCD camera (narrow fov), while an additional two cameras (wide fov) were placed vertically on the bridge of the nose. The high resolution cameras in each eye were used to detect (among other things) the eyes of the person facing the robot, which allowed Kismet to make eye contact. Given the state of computers at the time, the vision processing, visual attention, and eye/neck control required a network of nine 400 MHz PCs.
Kismet vocalizes using a speech synthesizer (DECtalk v4.5), though it usually does not say specific words or phrases. Instead, it tends to babble like a baby in different tones to communicate its mood. Kismet’s social intelligence also extends to speech, since it uses intuitive conversational cues to encourage turn-taking. Just as people tend to raise their eyebrows while listening, or blink more frequently when finishing their turn, interactions with Kismet have a natural rhythm.
Although it was equipped with microphones near the ears, the person interacting with Kismet would also wear a small wireless mic for better sound quality. Two separate computers (running at 500 MHz and 450 MHz) would process and recognize speech in real-time. The speech recognition software, developed at MIT’s Spoken Language Systems Group, could detect your intent based on your tone of voice. High-pitched voices would excite the robot, while low-pitched voices would upset it.
Its face and neck have 21 degrees of freedom (2 ears x2, 2 eyebrows x2, 2 eyelids x1, eyes x3, lips x4, jaw x1, neck x3), weighing 3.6kg. Its ears were able to perk up to show interest, or fold down to show fear or anger. The four actuators in its lips (one for each corner of the mouth) gave Kismet its smile and frown, and its jaw could open and close. Thanks to its relatively simple yet expressive design, Kismet has inspired many copies. Several examples from around the world appear to be based directly on Kismet’s model, including some examples a decade later from South Korea (such as the English tutoring robot FR-i).
Kismet has since been retired to the MIT Museum. Researchers at MIT have gone on to create new expressive robot heads (see Mertz), including a newer version of Kismet called K4. Although these heads were never used for Cog, the technology and design improvements made for these robots and MIT’s Domo would lead to the formation of MEKA Robotics, which has created some of the most successful examples in recent years (see Simon, Dreamer, and M1). The heads developed by MEKA Robotics don’t suffer from the “lazy eye” syndrome sometimes seen in other robots. Sadly, Kismet’s level of social intelligence hasn’t been seen in many other robots besides its sibling, MIT’s Leonardo.
MIT News Office | Science Photo | CDevers @ Flickr | Questier | Tech-Optics | Sam Ogden