Flinders takes smart thinking to Beijing during Olympics

Flinders University’s engineering ingenuity will be on show in Beijing during the Olympic Games when the most advanced version of The Thinking Head makes its international debut.

The product of an artificial intelligence research program at Flinders and three other Australian universities, The Thinking Head can talk, show emotions, maintain eye contact with visitors, and even compose basic poetry.

The Thinking Head will be featured at Synthetic Times, an art and technology exhibition staged by the National Art Museum of China in association with the Beijing Olympics.

The Olympic outing for The Thinking Head coincides with the pending launch of five new engineering courses at Flinders University for 2009.

Flinders Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Barber, said the ground-breaking nature of The Thinking Head research program highlights the skills and knowledge that Flinders will bring to its new robotics, biomedical, electronic, computer systems and software engineering courses. And students could readily be exposed to such programs.

“Flinders engineering courses, coupled with the University’s Science High Achievers Program, could see first year students engaging with The Thinking Head project, one of the most advanced artificial intelligence programs in Australia,” Professor Barber said.

Flinders’ School of Informatics and Engineering Thinking Head research team, led by Associate Professor David Powers and including research associates Dr Martin Luerssen and Dr Trent Lewis, have employed sophisticated algorithms and software programming to almost bring The Thinking Head to life with a range of facial expressions, gestures and eye contact.

In response to typed questions, The Thinking Head filters thousands of pieces of stored data to craft a response that is delivered in a ‘human’ voice. And, given a subject, can generate a simple rhyming couplet.

Associate Professor Powers said current challenges being tackled by the research team include the development of a lip-reading capability and the boosting of The Thinking Head’s ‘knowledge’ through access to the global, on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

“We hope to have developed an audio-visual speech recognition capability for The Thinking Head within the next 12 months,” Associate Professor Powers said.

“This lip-reading capability will allow spoken conversation with The Thinking Head even in noisy exhibition halls,” he said.

With information provided through strategically placed cameras, The Thinking Head notes variations in skin tones to identify the various parts of a face in front of it, estimates the distances between key features like eyes and ears, and builds up a picture of a human face that it will, in time, be able to recognise from memory.

The Thinking Head is already delivering practical outcomes. With a German partner, the Flinders technology is about to be redeployed to teach German to school children. Eventually, it will even have the capability to respond with appropriate regional accents.

Other future uses include a wide range of education and training applications and the provision of information, at tourist attractions for example, where a ‘human’ touch is required.

As Flinders and its partner universities (Western Sydney, Macquarie and Canberra) add each new technological advance, The Thinking Head edges closer to an artificial intelligence capability once regarded as in the realm of science fiction.

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