Researchers at the University of Arizona and Carnegie Mellon University are working to create a robot receptionist that is bilingual and bicultural. The user interface will be a computer with a face that can speak and understand English and Arabic.
The researchers say a bicultural robot is not one that merely switches between English and Arabic, but also has both modes simultaneously active in order to spot and deal with potential cultural ambiguities and misunderstandings.
"You may speak Arabic, but you may choose to converse with the robot in English," said Sandiway Fong, a computational linguist at the University of Arizona. "You may be conversing with the sensibility and the cultural background and the idioms from the Arabic world. This robot needs to understand both."
The phrase "week after week," for example, "I'm looking for the group that meets week after week" means "every week" in English. But in some Arabic dialects it can mean "every other week." Only a robot that is simultaneously facile with both lexicons can compute that this phrase is subject to cultural variation and can ask the user for clarification.
"In American culture, we quickly greet someone and then we tend to get down to business," said Fong. "In Arab cultures, it is rude to actually get down to business right away. There is much more turn-taking in greetings. Hala will know this."
Hala also will adjust responses based on cues from the visitor. For example, Is this person high-status? Is this person American? Is this person in a hurry?