Robot learns language skills

It's like something out of a Science Fiction novel - a robot which can learn to speak by interacting with a person. It's a scene currently playing out in a research laboratory at the University of Hertfordshire.

A team of scientists have created a robot that can develop basic language skills. The humanoid robot iCub, called DeeChee, has been programmed with nearly all the syllables that exist in English. That's around 40,000 in total.

Initially the robot can only babble in a stream of incoherent sounds. However, after engaging in a few minutes of conversation with humans, the robot adapts its output to the most frequently heard syllables to produce some word forms such as the names of simple shapes and colours.

The humanoid robot iCub
The humanoid robot iCub Credit: ITV Anglia

Professor Chrystopher Nehaniv, Dr Caroline Lyon and Dr Joe Saunders have carried out the experiments as part of the iTalk project which looks at the process of language learning.

The researchers use volunteers to act as teachers who are told to speak to DeeChee as if it were a child. Dr Caroline Lyon said:

“It is known that infants are sensitive to the frequency of sounds in speech, and these experiments show how this sensitivity can be modelled and contribute to the learning of word forms by a robot.”

– Dr Caroline Lyon
Dr Caroline Lyon with DeeChee
Dr Caroline Lyon with DeeChee Credit: ITV Anglia

At the end of each short session, the robot uses real words more often than if it was still selecting syllables at random. Once the robot has learnt to say the words, it is then taught to understand their meaning.

Volunteers are again used to act as teachers, encouraging the robot to associate the words with pictures. The robot then starts to recognise simple shapes and symbols and uses the correct word to describe what it is seeing - "circle", "triangle", "square" and so on.

It is still a long way from developing fluent language but researchers say it could be the beginning of creating robots that can speak naturally.