ECU students work to make robots more interactive, act more human

Seymone Gugneja gave a firm command — “Hands up.”

The response was immediate — “I surrender.”

Gugneja is no police officer. She’s a senior computer science major at East Carolina University, and her command was to one of seven NAO robots in the Department of Computer Science.

“What we’re doing with this is testing natural language processing methods,” Gugneja said. “We’re having it walk, having it talk and having it move, just act humanoid basically.”

The robots come with a number of preprogrammed movements and actions. The key is for students to program the robots to be more interactive so they can respond to questions or provide information.

“Our end goal with this robot is just to have it be a learning resource for classes so students can just come up to it and talk to it, and it will interact with them,” Gugneja said. “If classes have natural language processing, then it will be used in those.”

And then sometimes the robots are just plain fun.

Gugneja and junior Katie Warren of Williamston have programmed the robot with everything from ECU game day chants and holiday greetings to dances. Fellow student Bryan Holguin Herrera even programmed it to “dab.”

Still, there are real-world implications to get robots to engage as humans.

“I was reading some research about how they are being used, and I found a research paper on how they are being used to help autistic kids. That’s cool,” Warren said.

Warren said though the robots are preprogrammed, she said computer science students get joy out of programming the robots themselves.

“We wanted to do it,” she said. “It’s the fun part and also the more complicated part.”

Warren works with graphical programming, while Gugneja is working with Python, another programming language.

“My favorite part is coding in Python, finding out how to make it walk and talk at the same time or how to make it do really difficult actions just by coding it in Python,” she said. “It is really fascinating because I can make a robot act like a human.

“Personally, my goal is to have it recognize my words so if I say one specific word, I want it to respond in a specific way. For example, if I say ‘red’ I want it to say, ‘my favorite color is red.’ Or if I say ‘blue’ I want it to say, ‘I don’t like blue.’ I want it to recognize my words and I want to work with its vision package. I want it to take pictures and I want it to recognize faces. Those are my personal goals.”

ECU’s Seymone Gugneja, left, helps Alyssa Rembisz, a sophomore at the Innovation Early College High School, program a NAO robot during a class demonstration in the Brewster Building. (Photo by Ken Buday)

Of course, just like humans, robots aren’t always quick to respond. During a demonstration to the Pitt County Innovation Early High School, she asked the robot how it was doing and got no response.

“It’s being a bit finicky,” Gugneja said.

When asked a second time, its eyes lit up.

“Very fine, thanks. And you? How goes it?”

Alyssa Rembisz, a sophomore at the high school, worked with Gugneja to create a simple message for the robot.

“I was a little confused at first, but then it seemed pretty simple,” Rembisz said. “I know a lot more goes into it, but it was pretty cool. It was funny when he responded.”

Dr. Nic Herndon, assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Technology, said students get many benefits from working with the robots.

“We are trying to use them for courses with the expectation that the students will get more engaged, but it also gets students interested in robotics as well, how to move a part of the robot, how to make it walk. It’s the basic steps in order to start a career in robotics,” he said. “I think that will be good for students.”

Herndon has also taken the robots to events, such as the grand opening of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Greenville last year, and to high schools.

“Some high schools have reached out to us, since we are working with the robots about their robotics clubs. They have a challenge trying to program their robots,” he said. “Our students can be mentors to their students in case they have any questions. So, we’re trying to establish collaborations with some of the high schools as well.”

As for Warren and Gugneja, they know working with the NAO robots will help them after graduation. Gugneja said she was interested in blockchain technology until she visited Herndon in his office one day and saw him working with the robots.

“Since I started working with the robots, I want to get into a robotics job, hopefully something in robotic development. Something like creating robots would be really cool,” Gugneja said. “I’m a techno person who really likes challenges, and they give me a challenge.”

As a junior, Warren is trying to soak up all the information she can.

“I’m trying to think of new things I can do with NAO and to learn every single thing I can about interacting with it, using it to learn more for my degree and natural language processing in general,” Warren said. “I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do in computer science yet, but I do know I’m very excited to keep learning for the rest of my life.”

Junior Katie Warren works with a NAO robot in the Science and Technology Building. (Photo by Ken Buday)