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Perfectly imperfect: Experimental dialogues between China-made humanoid

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-04-26 11:14
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HEFEI, China — "Jia Jia, I am really confused," Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and famous technology writer, said on Monday when his Skype conversation with Jia Jia, a Chinese humanoid robot, was interrupted by the network latency for a moment.

"Well, I said that all the time about life," replied Jia Jia, moving her thin and curved lips at the same time.

Impressed by the robot's answer, Kelly nodded approvingly in California, which also gave a relief to the research team across the Pacific Ocean in Hefei, East China. After that, the robot's performance began to improve as the internet stabilized.

Kelly's conversation with Jia Jia was part of the experimental dialogues initiated and live streamed by Xinhua. Besides Kelly, the experiment also involved influential artificial intelligence (AI) scientists from the United States, Europe and Singapore.

This conversation can be seen as a concise episode of Jia Jia's performance throughout the whole day, during which she managed to give satisfactory answers to most questions despite some mistakes.

"What Jia Jia did today was really challenging," Professor Chen Xiaoping, the leader of the Jia Jia's research team at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, told Xinhua after the experiment. "Indeed, she made some mistakes. But her overall performance was good and had clearly improved compared with her last public appearance, so I am satisfied with it."

He noticed that Jia Jia's performance improved greatly once the internet connection became better. The professor explained that most of the time Jia Jia needed to search the corpus in the cloud for suitable answers. During Monday's dialogues, video chats and live stream took up a large part of the bandwidth and thusly created several problems for the robot.

"We should have foreseen the problem," Liu Song, an assistant of Professor Chen, admitted. However, he also pointed out that despite the difficulties, Jia Jia managed to answer most of the questions, and some of the answers were surprisingly good: during her talk with Professor Bart Selman from Cornell University, Jia Jia humorously said that what she was looking forward to in her life was Friday and paycheck.

Professor Chen gave Jia Jia 70 points out of 100 for her performance, which, for reporters who witnessed all the dialogues, was an accurate evaluation. For those who had expected a "Westworld" android, Jia Jia is far from perfection. But no AI in the world could do substantially better under the same circumstances.

In fact, Jia Jia is one of the few robots in the world that have both high intelligence - for robots of course - and a very human-like appearance, which is why she has received so much attention from the scientific community.

Building a smart android that can move, think and talk like human beings is the holy grail of robotics and computer science. The human body is probably the most complicated and incredible entity we have seen so far. In designing human-inspired robots, machines are developed to the highest standard, which embodies the ambition and curiosity of the human race.

"We human beings should try to go beyond some traditional boundaries," said Professor Chen from the USTC, noting that what Jia Jia improved in Monday's dialogues was only a small step in the long path toward the destination but it was a step beyond the boundaries.

"Smart humanoid robots are basically an uncharted domain. No one can show us the right path. This is why it's so hard to continue improving Jia Jia," said Chen. "But that's also why we have so much fun."

Chen Zhang, a young engineer in Jia Jia's research team, also said that he was thrilled to see the improvement the robot made in the Skype conversations. "Every step forward, no matter how small, is encouraging," he said.

"Every experiment has imperfections. But in some way, they light up our future path," the young engineer said, while looking at Jia Jia affectionately.

Jia Jia's engineers all said that it was an ineffable feeling to look at Jia Jia, who has alluring eyes, rosy and translucent skin, and long black hair braided in a traditional Chinese style. One could even see the light flickered in the artificial eyes for a moment as if she was alive.

That light, Jia Jia's researchers said, was the light of human brilliance.

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