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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Little Story

Yesterday I blogged that the Sherbrooke robot Spartacus needed to use the elevators in the hotel to move between floors, as part of the Robot Challenge. While I haven't heard how that part of the Challenge went, I had a rather didactic experience myself with the elevator today that lead me into some thinking regarding robot (and human) elevator conversation etiquette. (Please note that I haven't actually studied this area nor have reviewed existing works.) In my short life I have lived in various single family homes and university dorms, which did not have elevators - only stairs - and thus I am quite experienced with stairwell conversation etiquette. However, stairwell etiquette does not transfer very well to elevator etiquette for several reasons. The most obvious differences (to me) are the types of activity involved and spatial considerations (stairs: walking in front of, or behind, the conversation partner, and speaking while stepping, and elevator: standing in a small enclosed space facing the conversation partner, maintaining an appropriate distance from the other elevator occupants). But the other, more interesting differences arise from the temporal constraints (or lack thereof) and their impact on the conversation duration and content.

I'll give a personal example to illustrate. Late Monday evening I was playing some jazz improvisations on the Westin hotel's lovely concert grand piano. After I finished, I had a chance to meet with one of the AAAI invited speakers who shared his interest in jazz performance and we briefly discussed some of our music related research and projects. All went well and I felt energized after such a stimulating day of conversations with such fascinating people. I meandered up to the next floor using the escalator and then realized that I needed to take the elevator to return to my hotel room. I pushed the elevator call button and when the door opened, discovered that the same invited speaker was already in the elevator. Now, this is where my brain's attempt to use a stairwell (or perhaps a hallway) conversation rule failed rather spectacularly (at least in terms of the conversation's success).

Fortunately it was a temporal, not a spatial rule which was used incorrectly. Basically, what happened was that I didn't take into account the sharply defined time constraint imposed by the elevator itself, and when the invited speaker politely mentioned one of my projects, I launched into a series of statements about the project, probably due to my excitement about the subject. Unfortunately for me, the elevator abruptly "dinged", door opened, and speaker exited, saying a terse "good night", leaving me in a rather awkward state. Some questions: If the main actor was a robot, would it detect this conversation failure? Could it learn from the mistake? (I hope I myself will!) Could a robot create a blog, or a narrative describing an incident that it experienced? What would an intelligent robot do if it entered an elevator with two invited speakers, one speaker a robot and the other human (and presumably the conversation rules / protocol would be different for each?) For example, if it decided to converse with the robot speaker, would it use natural language so as not to alienate the human speaker? Or maybe it would have a wireless, data based conversation with the robot and a simultaneous natural language conversation with the human speaker. (But the time constraint might not apply to the wireless mode and perhaps the two robots would not determine their conversation patterns by locality: robots might be connected to an intra robot communications network which determines conversation patterns in other ways - I mentioned this to Caroline and it made her think of something from Jungian psychology.)

Anyways, enough rambling for now!

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