She’s got blue hair, bright red lips and an attitude to match. She’s Hala and she’s your bilingual robot receptionist. While Carnegie Mellon Qatar’s newest employee may not be on the payroll, she is having quite an impact on campus.
“Hala is giving us a look into the future: at automation and technology,” says Yasser Masood, senior information systems major. “Robots are everywhere in the industrial world and now Hala is part of our regular life. You can’t buy her but you can interact with her.”
Dressed in a smart navy jacket and Carnegie Mellon scarf, Hala is ready to answer questions in both English and Arabic. You type a question, and she’ll say the answer aloud. She can give directions to an office or a classroom, tell you where to get a cup of coffee or just chit chat about her life in Doha. When she is feeling bored, Hala even reaches out and tries to initiate conversations with passersby.
Hala is a robot receptionist designed to explore algorithms for human robot interaction in a mixed cultural setting. She is not your typical robot; quite the opposite. She speaks formal Arabic and American English with no local dialect. She has a personal background and personality unique to her.
Talk to her and you’ll learn about her travels, and perhaps something about Qatar and the Middle East in the process. But don’t waste her time with boring questions because rumor is she’s quite short-tempered.
Carnegie Mellon is the only place in Qatar to “employ” a robot, however senior systems scientist Brett Browning, Ph.D., is hoping that will change. “As the technology matures, robots will have a profound impact on industry through helping those that need assistance such as the visually impaired. At the Qri8 lab we are working on fundamental technology to make this vision a reality,” says Browning.
Hala, which means hello in all Arabic dialects, is the next generation of Marion “Tank” LaFleur, the roboceptionist at the Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon Pittsburgh. Hala is built using the same foundations as Tank, but was given a bilingual element to make her culturally relevant.
Hala is a product of the Qri8 lab and is funded by a Qatar National Research Fund grant. The project is a collaboration between computer science professors Majd Sakr, Ph.D., and Browning in Qatar, and Robotics Institute Professor Reid Simmons in Pittsburgh. Hala also involves three research staff – Imran Fanaswala, Ameer Abdulsalaam and Wael Al Ghazzawi – along with a number of undergraduate students.
The goals of the project are focused on improving Hala’s perception and dialogue capabilities. In the near future, Browning says Hala will have much more engaging conversation skills and may undergo Qatar’s first robot makeover.