FriendBot and RoboDog - Connection Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Ben Husmann.

The word “robot” was coined in Karel Capek’s 1920 science-fiction play Rossum’s Universal Robots referring to arguably soulless, artificial humanoids created through means of mass production.

Spoiler alert: the play ends with a takeover of earth by the rebellious “robots” leading to the extinction of the human race.

Capek’s premise may have worked to inspire numerous plotlines like The Matrix and Artificial Intelligence. But those dystopias are fictional–and until the real robot revolution happens, companies are creating interactive machines to be our companions.

For one, there’s Victor, the talking robot who plays Scrabble (poorly) at Carnegie Mellon University. Another is RoboThespian by UK company Engineered Arts, which acts in plays and guides tours through gallery exhibitions.

One newer model by Engineered Arts is SociBot, a “social robot” with which people can talk. Get this: its head has a 3D interface slate where you can upload a photo of anyone’s face and it’s almost like you’re talking to a soulless, artificial version of that person. The SociBot can then converse with you in over 20 lip-synced languages, bobbing its head accordingly while communicating via voice recognition, speech synthesis, and facial tracking.

Engineered Arts advertises these machines as spatially functional for those who don’t have enough room for a full humanoid, plus “a great choice if your robot budget is limited.” True, if you consider $24,000 a steal for tactile digital companionship, but if you’re stingy, it’s (only) $15,700 for the desktop Mini version.

But don’t worry, for those steep prices, your robo-friend comes with an additional creep factor. SociBot is watching you with specialized cameras: it’s apparently able to interpret your mood by scanning your facial features and mapping them against internal emotional templates. Also, its pupils dilate when someone enters the room. Such connective camaraderie.

Don’t assume you have to be a lonely homebody to enjoy your robo-friend. They’re designed so they can accompany you in public places like museums, restaurants, or shops. Noisy surroundings might interfere with robo-conversation, but hey, the same factor goes with warm-blooded, un-programmed friends.

Maybe all these futuristic features got you thinking that we now live in the reality of the Jetson’s–but don’t get ahead with your fantasies of Rosie, the cartoon family’s talking robotic maid. Engineered Arts tersely answered the FAQ-listed inquiry of whether the machine can tidy up: “SociBot hates doing washing up – get a dishwashing machine.”

Oh well. For the time being, you’d better stick with that un-chatty Roomba for your mundane chores.

If you think these vacuuming robots are boringly faceless, realize that you can easily get creative with them. For instance, some people put their cats on their Roombas to create viral video productions, and then introduce their pet duck and dog to demonstrate how much fun they have at home.

Speaking of which, you can get an interactive robotic dog, like Zoomer, if you desire a little playmate to liven up your domestic sphere.

As a voice-activated robotic dog, owners can train it to listen to commands like “Go Pee” (it lifts its hind leg) or “Roll Over” (it flips and twists on the floor).

Zoomer woofs and whimpers accordingly. Affectionately, its eyes morph into pixilated hearts when you say, “Zoomer, I love you.”

Owners can tenderly pet Zoomer’s plastic coat, a smooth surface that duly frees humans from the burdens of fur: flea prevention, expensive groomers’ fees, wet dog smells, cleaning hair out of the bathtub, allergies, lint rollers. In fact, you can’t even apply water to wash Zoomer, as, like any electronic device, wetting it would ruin the machinery and pose a hazard.

No worries about taking the Zoomer to the vet, either. If the plastic ears fall off, you can just pop them back on.

Though, if you’re toying with the idea of adding a dog to your life to get exercise, Zoomer isn’t the way to go; you can’t take it outdoors. Not only that, it can only “play” for 20-30 minutes before it needs a “nap”, which really means charging it for an hour. Effective discipline may be another downside, as some say Zoomer is no good at listening to children’s commands.

Neither Engineered Arts nor the representatives at Zoomer responded to interview requests for this article. Perhaps they are too engaged in philosophical conversation or jovial playtime with their mechanical creations.

It’s probable that interactive robot technology will develop further as we move into the future. Let’s just hope that these innovative “companions” stay content and do not plot to usurp–and eradicate–the human race.