Other Voices

Shall AI compare thee? UTA robot recites Shakespeare for science study

NAO, a sonnet-reciting robot, is part of a UTA interdisciplinary study on participatory arts and older adults.
NAO, a sonnet-reciting robot, is part of a UTA interdisciplinary study on participatory arts and older adults. spintilie@star-telegram.com

As we walked down to the University of Texas at Arlington theater from Julienne Greer’s office, the assistant professor of theatre arts: social robotics and performance, had to cradle her robot, NAO, like a sleeping toddler.

The robot’s arms slumped against her body, making it difficult for her to pull her keys out of her pocket. She dropped them, joking about its toddler qualities.

Once inside, we situated NAO onstage for photos, as curious students asked questions, fascinated about why a robot belongs in the theater.

This 2-foot-tall robot knows Shakespeare.

NAO doesn’t just recite. It performs Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) with an actor’s flourish. You can’t help but get sucked into the performance.

NAO (pronounced “now”) is a fascinating machine. It can tell stories, dance, answer questions and now, thanks to Greer and the UT Arlington Research Institute, perform sonnets.

“I’m humanizing social robots so people want to interact with them more,” she said.

Greer doesn’t just want to pull a robot out of box and set it in front of a person.

Using her extensive background in physical theater, video game work and humanities, Greer creates a more affecting way for robots to emote. She doesn’t want robots’ interactions with humans to be — well — robotic.

“I want to take the experience of theater and say, ‘How can we take all of that and do that with a robot now and 20, 30, 40 years from now?’ ” she said.

University of Texas at Arlington’s Julienne Greer, assistant professor of theatre arts: social robotics and performance, wants to use NAO and Shakespeare to help older adults in a new interdisciplinary study.

This year, her group of researchers won a UTA Interdisciplinary Research Program grant proposal called “Shakespeare and Robots: Examining the impact of a theater intervention on psychological well-being in older adults.”

She will work with School of Social Work’s Ling Xu and Noelle Fields and three Research Institute members: Kris Doelling, Mike McNair and Jeongsik Shin.

The grant is part of UTA’s strategic plan to boost more interdisciplinary research on campus.

Interdisciplinary research can promote a new way to tackle a problem or a fresh approach to age-old questions. It can produce exciting and refreshing elements, like a Shakespeare-reciting robot.

Greer’s study, when it begins in April, will have older adults listen as NAO recites the first 12 lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, and the people will recite the last two lines.

“The pilot data will support our long-term goal to develop a robotic platform that can promote social connectivity and decrease loneliness among older adults,” the study says.

There have been previous studies on participatory arts and older adults, but not many with theater. Participatory arts have been shown to greatly improve most people’s well-being, but they have also been shown to be particularly good for senior citizens.

Arts can create a dialogue on how you feel about something, Greer said.

That dialogue can lessen isolation and bring more social interaction, especially with older adults. Robots can also help create that dialogue.

This study will be a building block to eventually creating an effective companionship robot, a “smartphone with personality.”

Greer has been working with robots for years, figuring out the best ways a robot can approach and interact with a human and get positive results. She tackles the problem like an actor would a script.

As actors we behave the way we want the audience to respond, she said.

In one study, she found that people like robots to be courteous and not approach a person directly.

People still fear robots, she said.

Greer believes this fear is Hollywood’s doing, saying we have only seen sexualized female androids or homicidal robots on screen.

Terminators and Westworld’s hosts are not the accurate portrayal of robots in the real world. Most are like NAO, a toddlerlike machine that has certain functions that have to be programmed in.

Greer jokes that in the extremely unlikely event of malicious robot, all you would have to do is go up two stairs.

NAO even has trouble with carpet and wants someone to hold its hand while walking.

Robots are nowhere near being dropped into households, she said.

That fear, and those big sociological questions, are something Greer wants to delve into and solve.

“As robots become more humanized and humans become more mechanized, we start asking: What is human?”

Sara Pintilie is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.