Assisted Robotic Sincerity
In the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century, I was living in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County. It had 31 cities and 5 incorporated communities. It was a place that had no visible boundaries, except for the San Gabriel Mountains to the north. Other than that, no landmark indicated any boundary. At times, people used the freeways as markers. One could go from town to town without knowing when one ended and another began.
I first lived in what was called a “bedroom community”, where people did their living and sleeping, but not their working. Then I moved to live in the centre of a small city, Pasadena. I was retired. For the first time in my life, I had leisure time and could say no to people who wanted to engage me to do work. One leisure activity was driving along Freeway 210 west to Glendale, where my dear friend Joseph had a wonderful second-hand bookstore. There I could linger for hours, looking at books and talking to other customers.
In a narrow passage between crudely made bookshelves, I met Juan for the first time. It turned out, we both were searching for books by Irving John Gill, an early-modern architect who worked at the turn of the 20th century in Southern California. We both had visited some of his projects in the San Diego area and the low-cost housing project he had designed in 1910 in Sierra Madre, a town near Pasadena. We had a lengthy discussion about Gill’s design approach and his work. We also discovered another shared passion: to find hole-in-the-wall eating establishments in the San Gabriel Valley, which had a broad diversity of cultures and ethnic eateries. The result was a plan to have lunch together the next Monday on a small side street in the nearby town of Alhambra.
When we parted, he handed me his card. His full name was Juan Carlos Flores Wong. He was a reporter for a local newspaper called the San Gabriel Valley Examiner.
The restaurant, only 12 tables in a converted garage, specialized in phô, a Vietnamese beef-based soup with rice noodles. A small platform at the back of the restaurant held a table with a cash register and a stool, on which sat a large middle-aged woman, the owner. From there she presided over her domain. Juan and I arrived at the same time and were told where to sit. We were also told what to order. This wasn’t a suggestion from her, but a command; there was no menu.
The food arrived on wooden trays, and it was delicious. Meanwhile, Juan told me something about himself. He wrote a column that mostly dealt with small industry manufacturing in the valley. Currently he was working on articles about a small consulting firm that solved robotic problems. He was quite stimulated by the column, but he had a problem with how to structure his findings in a dynamic and readable article. We discussed this at length. After a few beers, I felt relaxed and tentatively suggested a format that involved short biographies from each interviewee along with the aims of the project. I suggested that would engage readers.
He was excited about this idea, and asked, “Which person should I start with?”
I said, “You.”
“Why me?” he asked.
I said, “Your name only appears under the title of your report. No one knows who you are. This is a perfect opportunity for you to tell your readers who you are and why you are interested in this project.”
We parted and promised to stay in touch. Another hole-in-the-wall. The summer went by quickly, punctuated by frequent holes in various walls. I was informed about his progress.
In August he presented me with a draft of his story.
My name is Juan Carlos Flores Wong. I am 31 years old, single, and a reporter who covers the small businesses from Pasadena to Claremont. My beat ranges from bakeries to hi-tech firms.
I love my work. I have few needs in my life; I live with my parents. People often tease me about that, but my parents and I are extremely happy with the arrangement. My father was a descendant of early Mexican settlers in Southern California. My ancestors were baptised in Mission del Arcangel San Gabriel in 1832. When my father came back from the Vietnam War, he worked as a janitor for the county-run Huntingdon Hospital, where my mother worked as a nurses’ aide. They met and married, and I was born in that hospital. My mother’s great-great-grandfather came from southern China to work on the transcontinental railroad. After the completion of the railroad, they moved to Southern California to become market gardeners.
My parents worked very hard and saved, and in the 1950s they managed to purchase a small parcel of land in the unincorporated Los Angeles county east of the town of San Marino. My father was a jack-of-all-trades, and throughout the years he built a small house for the three of us as well as a four-plex unit that he rented mostly to nurses in the hospital. Later, when my grandmother came to live with us, my father built a granny flat on the property. When she passed away, that became my home. Two rooms plus a small kitchen and a bath—it’s all I need.
My life has been simple and straightforward. Because we lived in an unincorporated area, the nearest school was in the nearest municipality, San Marino, which by 1980 was the richest community in the San Gabriel Valley, so I had a good education. A scholarship was awarded to me to study journalism at Columbia University in New York. After graduation, I stayed in New York and worked for a second-tier newspaper covering family court. After three years, I got myself a pick-up truck, loaded up all my possessions, and came home to San Marino.
Tomorrow, I will meet a co-founder of a small robotics firm. He is a friend of mine from school days.
A week later, Juan gave me another draft column with another person—his friend the co-founder of the robotics company.
My name is Charles C. Y. Lee, 25. I am a mathematician and teach at Cal Tech. I live alone in a house my father commissioned and had built, designed by an architect who admired Case Studies design: light steel construction, openings, flat roof, spaces both airy and light.It was not big by today’s standards but is more than adequate for my needs. My parents are still alive and occupy an apartment in downtown Pasadena. I’m conservative; I enjoy wearing a suit and tie and polished shoes—mainly because I look younger than my age. People tend to treat me as a boy, so I try to look more mature. I’ve been teaching and researching for the last 5 years. My areas are mathematics and psychology. Three years ago, I co-founded a small company offering services to solve robotic problems. The company recently was awarded a contract from the Department of Defense. In fact, a Mr. Constantine Perov, from the FBI, interviewed me last week at the Athenaeum. He showed me a file and asked me to confirm the data in it. You can see the file.
Name: Charles C.Y. Lee
Father: Richard C. B. Lee, Professor of Economics, ret. CSULA
Mother: Dorothy Fong, Early Childhood educator, ret.
Education: San Marino schools, left at age 12 to attend university
Cal State LA: B.A.1985 Mathematics (Early Entrance Programme)
MIT: PhD Mathematics 1988
Harvard: MS: Psychology 1990
In 1992, I met Matteo, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering, and we formed the company. On Saturday, Matteo assembled all of us at NBC, a Chinese dim sum restaurant in Monterey Park. He outlined a proposal from Holland for a new project and asked our opinions. After an hour of discussion, by the time the dessert cart came by, we had decided to take on the project.
My name is Matteo De Rosa, 45.My PhD is in mechanical engineering. I’m married to an accountant, and we have three children ages 10, 8, and 5. We live in a comfortable suburban home, newly-built, in Arcadia.
I’m co-founder of the RTRA company. Its name is an anagram of Robotics Technology, Research, and Analysis. The company’s main function is to offer robotics solutions for businesses. We have six people: two senior consultants, two analysts, and two engineers. The strength of the company is its network of a large pool of expertise that RTRA can draw upon for any specific project. I’m the manager of the company and the network. We have a small building in an industrial park in Altadena. We are very informally structured, and the little building is open 24 hours a day for us to come in and work any hours. I take care of all aspects of the business, from promotion to contacts to project assignments and recruitments from the network, to financial management. We have few competitors, and our clients reward us well.
We also affiliate with a wide range of robot manufacturers, internationally. Last Friday I received an email from a manufacturer in Holland who makes human-like robots to keep elderly people company. The problem they have is that their elderly clients feel the robots are too remote and not “sincere.” In other words, they sense an emotional deficiency. The company wants us to solve this problem.
By Monday in a Skype conference meeting with the Dutch, we came to an agreement to go ahead and do research on this problem. But we cannot guarantee the result, because this is unknown territory. After lengthy discussion, Charles and I decided to assemble a small team and recruit from our network.
My name is William E. Rice, 48. I grew up in a small town, Hastings, Nebraska, that had no particular distinctions except that it is the home of the Kool-Aid inventor. Its other distinction is the TransAmerican railroad called the California Zephyr, which goes through the center of town. My parents owned a sporting goods store, fishing and hunting being the big recreations in this area. That was all I heard at the counter—fishing, fishing rods, guns and ammunition and shooting. I had no interest in it at all.
I was one of five children, right in the middle, the invisible one. I had a lot of free time growing up. My two older siblings were too old for me, and the two younger ones were too young, so I was alone by myself. One of my lone adventures was to go to the station to watch the trains pass through, especially the Zephyrs with sleeping and dining cars. I often imagined myself on the train going east to Chicago, going west to Los Angeles, away from Hastings.
In my local high school I acquired a passion for literature. I wanted to understand how words and sentences could generate feelings. I wrote a lot in secret. I put down in words everything that came to my mind. I never showed my writing to anyone—my parents, brothers and sisters, classmates, teachers, friends—except the school librarian, Miss Baker. She was an elderly, kind spinster. In my final year, with her help, I was awarded a scholarship to study in one of the Claremont colleges in California. I earned double undergraduate degrees in literature and psychology, and did graduate research on “words and their affect.” In other words, I was interested in how words arouse emotional reactions.
At that time, I developed a three-part strategy for my life and my work. First, I really wanted to focus primarily on my work. Second, I aimed to reduce my needs and desires to a minimal level. Third, I would find work that would sustain my basic needs. For the past 10 years I have lived in Pasadena in a one-room apartment in a historical building called “Castle Green”.
Currently I work two nights a week at California State University, Los Angeles in a psychology lab, as a facilitator of lab projects designed by the research of teaching staff. I earn enough to support my lifestyle.
I met Charles at All Saints Episcopal Church at a workshop for creating modern liturgies that connect to the emotional life of parishioners. It’s my parish church, and the workshop was mentioned one Sunday in the Order of Worship. I subsequently worked on a small project for Charles, and with the money he paid me I took a break from work and wrote a book, Affective Meaning in Poetry, based on my research.
Recently, Charles has asked me again if I would like to join a team he is putting together for a project. He needs me to provide a limited number of words for a robotic application. Specifically, he wanted me to identify words that generate an attribution of sincerity in the listener towards the speaker, who in this case is a robot.
My name is Emily Hoffman, 31. I’m single. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. My early life was spent between Pasadena in the west and Pomona in the east of the valley.I went to school in Pasadena and university in Claremont. In Pitzer College, I got interested in different sounds in different languages in my undergraduate Anthropology degree. Click languages from Africa especially intrigued me.
I coined the term “sound unit” for nonverbal sounds—sounds that are not words—which I began to hear everywhere. “Ah” and “umm” of course, but then I learned about the Chinese telephone answering sound unit, used by all Chinese when they pick up a telephone in response to a ring: “Wei?” Japanese use the sound unit “eh?” in a variety of intonations to show happy surprise, astonished surprise, disbelief, and other meanings.
When I was in high school I developed a passion for stand-up comedy. Pasadena, my home town, has a very famous stand-up venue called The Ice House. It was my dream to have a gig there, and I finally did it in 1993. The night before, Robin Williams was there. I developed a comic routine that used sound units instead of words to create comedy. It was very well received.
About 10 years ago my mother’s brother passed away, and he left me his apartment in Sierra Madre. It was designed by the architect Irving Gill as a low-income housing project. I love my study area, which faces a large arched window. Through it I can see the terraced landscape of the inner courtyard. He also left me a monthly annuity, so I enjoy modest financial independence.
I got to know Matteo through his wife, Lucia, who is my accountant. We met at a dancercize class. I mentioned my work to Matteo, my searching for human sounds for comic effects, and he immediately put me into his network file-o-fax. Just recently he has recruited me onto a team.
Juan had been keeping me up-to-date on his ACS project for six months or so, over various meals in restaurants from around the world. ACS is an acronym for Assisted Robotic Sincerity. Then he invited me to attend a presentation of the HCR-A (Human Companion Robot A), held at the Pasadena Convention Center. Fifty or sixty people listened to the co-founders, Matteo and Charles, converse about the HCR-A. I was sitting with Emily, William, and Juan.
I learned a lot about the concept behind the project and found it both elegant and simple. In fact, I took notes. Here are my thoughts as I jotted them down then, and have elaborated a bit since.
We all have memories of daily interactions with people we have found to be sincere. Because those things happen frequently, we don’t stop to analyse but just accept them as sincere, because we have created templates about those people and their behaviour in certain ways.
People have memories of kindness imprinted deeply in our minds. In recalling them over and over again, we develop a template instead of thinking and analysing their behaviour every time. When we encounter the behaviour that fits into the template, we automatically respond with the feeling we developed earlier. We feel kindly disposed toward the person and attribute sincerity to their actions.
Charles mentioned they had become aware, during the research and development of HCR-A, that it is a culture-specific product. In another culture such as his parents’ Chinese culture, certain behaviours they used for this study might be offensive. They might not generate the same result. What they really did was create a concept and a procedure. The Dutch clients would have to modify their work accordingly.
Matteo and Charles limited the templates behaviours to three areas: gestures, words, and sounds. They narrowed down four behaviours in the three areas. Programmers integrated these 12 items into the robotics and engineers activated them. After their delivery as a duo, a documentary video showed us a robot called Bobbi interacting with a group of elderly people, displaying the new behaviours.
Four gestures: touching the back of the hand gently, slightly leaning forward to listen, tilting her head from time to time while listening, extending both arms to indicate willingness to be hugged.
Four words: feel, share, with, love
Four sounds: eh? Aah. Aww. Uh-huh.
When asked, after the interaction with Bobbi, how they felt toward her, the elderly participants said they found Bobbi “sympathetic”. Then the researcher probed a bit, and one by one they agreed they found Bobbi “sincere.”
The project was deemed a great success.
After the presentation, we all went to a nearby Mexican restaurant. All ten of us were sitting at a large round table. The conversation was focused on reminiscences of how they developed this project. Juan and I listened attentively, quite interested.
Emily was sitting between us. She seemed quiet and pensive. Finally, she asked, “If someone could master what we just created in words, gestures, and sounds, he or she would be perceived as sincere. But in fact, she or he would not be sincere. How do you tell what is ACS and what is genuine sincerity?”
The people around the table were silent. Finally, Charles said quietly, “My Buddhist friend would say, ‘Both are illusions.’”