4 June 2013

Robots can develop basic language skills through interaction with a human, according to new results from researchers at the University of Hertfordshire and published in PLoS ONE

Learning basic language

Dr Caroline Lyon, Professor Chrystopher Nehaniv and Dr Joe Saunders have carried out experiments as part of the iTalk project with the childlike iCub humanoid robot to show how language learning emerges. Initially the robot can only babble and perceives speech as a string of sounds, not divided up into words.

After engaging in a few minutes of “conversation” with humans, in which the participants were instructed to speak to the robot as if it were a small child, the robot adapted its output to the most frequently heard syllables to produce some word forms such as the names of simple shapes and colours.


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.”

The iTalk project teaches the robot to speak using methods similar to those used to teach children and is a key part in the learning process of the human-robot interaction. Although the iCub robot is learning to produce word forms, it does not know their meaning, and learning meanings is another part of the iTalk project’s research.

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These scientific and technological advances could have a significant impact on the future generation of interactive robotic systems. The research paper “Interactive language learning by robots: the transition from babbling to word forms” can be read here

A short video on iCub robot learning names of colours and shapes can be seen here