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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The ground-breaking model, which recognises and responds to human emotions, uses 31 motors and a patented flesh-like material called Frubber to make lifelike facial expressions.

Scientists hope it will defy the perception that human-like robots are "creepy" and could be the first step to making robots emotionally sensitive, preventing a "Matrix"-style war between man and machine.

Einstein, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist noted for his theory of relativity, was chosen for the model because he appears "lovable and emotionally accessible", as well as being a universally esteemed scientist.

They say the robot, designed by Texas-based Hanson Robotics, can interact "naturally" with humans and could be used to teach autistic children how to perceive emotion.

David Hanson, the robot's designer, told UC San Diego News: "Some scientists believe strongly that very human-like robots are so inherently creepy that people can never get over it and interact with them normally.

"But these are some of the questions we're trying to address with the Einstein robot. Does software engage people more when you have a robot that's more aware of you?

"We're trying to get past the novelty of the technology to a certain extent so that people can socially engage with the robots and get lost in that social engagement.

"But it's very important that we develop empathetic machines, machines that have compassion, machines that understand what you're feeling.

"If these robots do become as intelligent as human beings, we want this infrastructure of compassion and empathy to be in place so the machines are prepared to use their intellectual powers for the good of civilisation. In a way, we're planting the seeds for the survival of humanity."

The robot uses facial recognition software that understands hundreds of human expressions such as sadness, anger, fear, happiness and confusion, as well as age and gender.

The flesh-like material that makes up the robot's face, Frubber, was designed and patented by Dr Hanson and is so detailed it even includes realistic skin pores.

Scientists at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego wrote the facial recognition software that enables the head-and-shoulders model to interact with people.

Javier Movellan, who designed the software, said: "Developing a robot like this one teaches us how sensitive we are to biological movement and facial expressions, and when we get it right, it's really astonishing.

"Although we're thinking of Einstein as a tool for science right now, in the future I could see it being used in museums or as a way to teach people from other cultures how to interact with one another.

"We're also exploring the use of the robot for children with autism. It could be used as a way to teach them facial expression recognition."

For now, the cost of robots – 75,000 US dollars (£52,000) for one as sophisticated as Einstein – prohibit them being so widely used, but Mr Hanson hopes mass production could eventually drive the cost down to 200 dollars.

Dr Movellan added that the production of a robot with a "complete mind" could be just 10 years away.


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