Robotville: the androids are coming
December 2, 2011
There's an infestation of robots at London's Science Museum this weekend. Robotville has set up camp in a darkened room on the second floor, where visitors to the museum can drop by to say hello to their mechanized counterparts. There are 23 robots all told, from toy dinosaurs to pressure-sensing fish and all-terrain robot cockroaches (though, being purely remote controlled, the latter isn't a robot in the strict sense). Most captivating, though, were the nine androids that struck Gizmag as being, in one way or another, the most human. Say hello to the robots that might help shape our future.
FLASH (the emo)
Hailing from the Wrocław University of Technology, FLASH stands for Flexible LIREC Autonomous Social Helper. LIREC, in case you're wondering, is an EU initiative that has given funding to many of the robots at Robotville, and itself stands for Living With Robots and Interactive Companions. FLASH is an experiment into the expression of human emotion in robots.
It has three inter-changeable heads called ROMEK, SAMUEL and EMYS, which each play to different emoting strengths. EMYS (from Emotive Heady System, pictured above) can look happy, sad, amazed, angry, tired and appalled. FLASH can turn its head to face human counterparts, and gets around on its Segway-like two-wheeled chassis. The premise is that robots that convey identifiable emotional responses will prove more acceptable to human society. None of the heads make a serious attempt at resembling a human's, and instead exhibit simplified caricatures of human emotions.
CHARLY (the mimic)
Similar to FLASH, The University of Hertfordshire's CHARLY (backronym alert: Companion Humanoid Robot for Living with You) is an experiment in human attitudes to robots. CHARLY has a screen for a head on which a face is displayed - stand before the robot, and its face will become a slightly blurred but unmistakable mirror image of your own. Wait a moment more, and it will begin to morph into an amorphous amalgam of various people it has met.
At first glance, the premise appears to be that humans will, on balance, respond most warmly to the average human face. For myself, I'm not sure I'd want a robot with my or anyone else's recognizable visage. However, neither do I like the idea of a robot with an awkward facial mashup of friends and strangers. It may not be explicit, but perhaps that's the underlying idea behind CHARLY. The yang to FLASH's yin, perhaps it was created to unnerve.
IURO (the conversationalist)
From Sweden's KTH Royal Institute of Technology comes IURO, or Furhat as he was introduced to Robotville visitors. IUORO is a robot that learns by conversing with people, and can hold a conversation with a group, turning from one participant to another to address them. There are hopes that IURO will one day navigate a city by asking for directions - IURO, you see, stands for Interactive Urban Robot.
IUORO's an inquisitive being, eager to ask as many questions of you as you are of it. The noisy environment of Robotville isn't the most conducive of conversation with IURO, alas. Even so, casting the net beyond his robot brethren, IUORO's was by no means the least engaging conversation of the afternoon.
Lightface (the placid)
Like FLASH and CHARLY, the Concept project that incorporates Lightface is as much an experiment in human psychology as robot technology. Plymouth University's Concept has an emoting childlike appearance back-projected onto its semi-transparent screen of a face. It's an effect not wholly unlike the robots of Alex Proyas's adaptation of I, Robot. "Is this baby face cute or creep?" the information panel asks. With its cartoonish looks, it maintains a more comfortable distance from the Uncanny Valley than CHARLY, but standing face to face with it is not an entirely comfortable experience.
iCub (the impertinent)
Like IURO, iCub - from the Italian Institute of Technology - is designed to learn. However, the emphasis here is on physical rather than verbal interaction. Show iCub a red ball (like those used in the Robocup) and he can not only turn to look towards it, but reach out and take it. He can also crawl on all fours and shoot a bow and arrow. Simple linear illuminations for iCub's mouth and eyebrows convey his "mood," but in a surprisingly effective way.
As iCub frowns with apparent inquisitiveness reaching for the ball in your hand, it's hard not to take an instant liking to him. Perhaps that's why I'm referring to him, rather than it. There are 20 iCubs in existence, and, for a cool EUR200,000 (US$267,900), the IIT will happily make you another.
We reported on some of iCub's Olympian efforts back in September.
KASPAR (the nanny)
KASPAR, another visitor from the The University of Hertfordshire, is yet another experiment in human-robot interaction, but one with a very specific purpose. As the Kinesics And Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics project website puts it: KASPAR's raison d'être is "the important role of play in child development and targets children who are prevented from playing, either due to cognitive, developmental or physical impairments."
Unlike other robots at Robotville, KASPAR's face is deliberately designed to be emotionally blank, only expressing - with the rest of his body - pantomime responses such as laughter or pain when tickled or pinched. KASPAR is an ongoing project to build a better child playmate, with recent iterations designed specifically for autistic children.
Dora (the Explorer)
Cheap pop culture reference notwithstanding, this robot from the University of Birmingham really is called Dora, and really is an explorer. Beyond the near-obligatory two arms and a head, Dora makes little attempt at human resemblance, but does have a charmingly hacked-together appearance thanks to the array of readily-available technology (some in use, some not) of which it is made.
Dora is designed to be able to explore and chart the interior of an unfamiliar house, identifying the types of room it visits en route. The idea is that it will eventually be able to find and retrieve items belonging to its owner. Dora's flirted with a variety of navigational systems in the past, including cameras and sonar, but infrared (thanks to the addition of a Kinect sensor) seems to work best.
Eccerobot (the facsimile)
It's easy to single out Eccerobot as the most human-like robot at Robotville - not because it smiles when you smile (it doesn't), and not because it can answer questions about the weather (it can't). Eccerobot has mechanical analogues for the bones, muscles and tendons that exist in a human which results in human-like movement, to an extent that the term anthropomimetic appears to have been coined in its honor. Apparently "cognitive features" are part of the project, and if they nail that the way they've nailed human anatomy, humanity can retire. As impressive as Eccerobot is, they've arguably gone an easier route than some by focusing purely on physicality.
Nao (the fool)
Nao's been knocking about since 2005, so if you're familiar with Aldebaran Robotics' little robot, it may be no surprise to you to hear that he (the one I spoke to was mainly male) steals the show at Robotville. It's tempting to be glib and say that the researchers into robot-human interaction need only wander across the floor to see how it should be done. That wouldn't be fair to the important research they're doing, but Nao is an enormously likable little robot.
This particular individual may be running a programmed crowd-pleasing repertoire, jumping through predetermined hoops in response to voice commands. On request, I saw Nao sing and dance, tell a story, visually track a ball around the room (while maintaining his own balance as the ball passed backwards over his head) and explore his environment. But for all that, Nao is an incredibly versatile robot, and perhaps it was this attribute that saw Nao supersede Aibo as the robot of choice for the Robocup's Standard Platform League. Nao isn't explicitly designed to teach us about human attitudes to robots, but it does exemplify the best of our understanding to date, and not merely because it's both small and cute.
For now, I think we still need them to look like machines. I didn't know I thought that til I spent a few hours in Robotville.
Robotville runs until December 4 at the Science Museum in London.