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Don't be surprised if you're greeted by a robot soon at U-M's Museum of Art

(Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)
(Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)

ANN ARBOR – Yes, you read the headline correctly.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art and U-M's Robotics Institute are partnering to develop a robot that can interact naturally with visitors and engage in interactive conversations about art.

The collaboration that blends engineering technology with the humanities aims to showcase "how museums can be interdisciplinary research laboratories that push the boundaries of scientific discovery."

The project is still in its design stages and, according to assistant professor of engineering and information, Jessie Yang, the project team is working to ensure that the robot can autonomously navigate its way around the museum, including around large groups of people.

Members of the U-M Robotics Institute pose for a photo at UMMA. (Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)
Members of the U-M Robotics Institute pose for a photo at UMMA. (Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)

The goal is for the robot to act as a docent, welcoming visitors with the type of language a docent uses and providing appropriate context and information about different artworks.

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For most visitors to UMMA, docents are the first people they encounter. That's because docents welcome and decide entry points for guests to explore the space. They also give tours for individuals and small groups, and tailor the experience, keeping visitors' needs and interest levels in mind.

"We want the robot to provide not only information, but to raise more questions for the visitor and provide a deeper experience than they would have had if they had just been in the museum by themselves," interim curator for museum teaching and learning Grace VanderVliet said in a statement.

UMMA's senior manager of museum technology, John Turner, said that the goal of the experiment is to see how the museum can promote social learning, not for robots to replace human docents.

(Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)
(Credit: Mark Gjukich | Courtesy the University of Michigan Museum of Art)

"I think what we're really trying to do is figure out how humanities-based collecting organizations like museums can become central research hubs for engineering projects more relevant to society at large," Turner said in a statement.

"The information that we're going to learn from how this robot interacts and assesses humans based on their behavior and what they say is going to be able to be built upon for other environments and contexts outside of the museum."

To learn more about UMMA, visit www.umma.umich.edu.

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