U-M Museum of Art in Ann Arbor Developing Autonomous Docent Robot

The University of Michigan Museum of Art and U-M’s Robotics Institute, both in Ann Arbor, are developing a robot that can act naturally with visitors and execute interactive conversations designed to encourage curiosity.
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robot docent in U-M Museum of Art
U-M researchers are developing a robot docent that can act naturally with visitors. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan Museum of Art and U-M’s Robotics Institute, both in Ann Arbor, are developing a robot that can act naturally with visitors and execute interactive conversations designed to encourage curiosity.

Project members are working to create a robot that can navigate autonomously throughout the museum and abide by social norms such as going around a group of people instead of cutting through it, says Jessie Yang, assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering and information.

They’re also trying to figure out how to make the robot communicate with guests, incorporating language and communication tactics a docent would use. Docents often provide additional information on the artwork and its context. At the U-M art museum, docents determine entry points for visitors and tailor tours to different groups.

“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,” says Grace VanderVliet, interim curator for museum teaching and learning.

She also says the goal is to develop a robot that can come up with custom responses by assessing visitors’ desires, interest levels, and questions.

The project has larger implications surrounding how the museum can facilitate societal learning.

“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,” says John Turner, senior manager of museum technology. “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.”

Robots won’t be at the museum soon, but the experiment will allow museum staff to reflect on how they interact with visitors and find ways to enhance that interaction.

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