Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Noisy Restaurant

Humans have a great ability to pick out a conversation and understand it in a noisy environment, such as at a restaurant or a party. Computer speech recognition is gradually getting this ability too. I recently read about a new development in computer speech recognition that allows it to listen to multiple conversations in a noisy environment and actually understand what was happening in each of those multiple conversations. Why not? Once it can understand one conversation in a noisy environment, it makes sense that duplicating some hardware should allow it to understand multiple conversations.

This brings some interesting situations to mind. Imagine a robot waitress (waiter? what's the correct term for something without a gender - waitred?) taking orders at a table. Instead of taking turns giving their order, each person could speak up simultaneously and announce their orders all at the same time. It would take some getting used to, but it's fun to think about.

That leads to the question of what other capabilities such a robot waitress could have that don't necessarily mimic human capabilities exactly. For example, arms that are more flexible and extendable with additional joints for placing food dishes directly in front of people on crowded tables. How about the ability to see in all directions (360 degrees) at the same time to better keep track of all the customers at different tables? No need to limit it to two eyes. Science fiction films too often portray robots with physical characteristics similar to humans, but that just shows a lack of imagination.

Addendum: Here's an even stranger one that might be a little hard to grasp at first - there's no need for each of the robot waitresses to have a "separate mind". They could all share the same mind, linked to their bodies by radio communication. Then you can grab the attention of any robot waitress walking by, and they will be able to respond to you with exactly the same familiarity as the original physical robot that greeted you when you first sat down.

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