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Call it the Great Convergence of Creepiness. The first bit, the uncanny valley, we’re all familiar with by now: If a humanoid robot looks super realistic, but not quite realistic enough, it freaks us out. So far that idea has been applied almost entirely to robot faces and bodies, but it’s less known as a phenomenon in robot voices.
Except, that is, to Kozminski University roboticist Aleksandra Przegalinska, also a research fellow at MIT. Przegalinska is bringing a scientific ear to the booming economy of chatbots and voice assistants like Alexa. WIRED sat down with Przegalinska at SXSW this week to talk about the monumental challenge of replicating human intonation, why the future of humanoid robots may not be particularly bright, and what happens when you let students teach a chatbot how to talk.
Conversation - Length - Clarity
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: So why study robot voices, of all things?
Robots - Creepiness - Face - Gaze - Voice
When you think about robots, the creepiness is not only in the face and in the gaze, although that's very powerful. It's also very often in the voice, the way it speaks. The tonality itself is a very important thing here. That's why we got interested in chatbots and so we built our own.
The chatbot was talking to my students for a whole year, mainly learning from them, so you can gather what kind of knowledge it got in the end! (How many curse words!) They were humiliating it constantly. Which is part perhaps of the uncanny valley, because when you think about it, why are they being so nasty to chatbots? Maybe they're nasty because the chatbot is just a chatbot, or maybe they're nasty because they're insecure—is there a human inside that thing, what's going on with that?
Robots - Study - Japan
Or even to physical robots. There was a study in Japan where they...
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