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Building a robot that humans can love is pretty ambitious. But Javier Movellan (in his San Diego lab with RUBI) says he would like to develop a robot that loves humans. (Timothy Archibald)

Robot Babies

Can scientists build a machine that learns as it goes and plays well with others?

Einstein the robot has enchanting eyes, the color of honey in sunlight. They are fringed with drugstore-variety false eyelashes and framed by matted gray brows made from real human hair. "What is that, makeup?" a visiting engineer asks, and, indeed, on closer examination I can see black eyeliner smeared beneath Einstein's lower lids, à la David Bowie in 1971. The machine's gaze is expressive—soulful, almost.

David Hanson, Einstein's creator, is visiting from Texas to help scientists here at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) prepare the robot for an upcoming conference. Hanson switches the robot on—really just a head and neck—and runs it through some of its dozens of expressions. Its lips purse. Its brow furrows. Its eyes widen as though in horror, then scrunch mirthfully as it flashes a grin.The 27 motors in the face make a wretched grinding sound, and when the mouth opens, I see a tangle of wires where the prodigious brain should be. Einstein's white wig is missing and the skin of its neck hangs in flaps, because its shoulders, made of plastic, got shattered in shipping.

Still, the effect is so lifelike that even jaded graduate students have stopped by to stroke the robot's wrinkled cheek, which is encased in a substance called Frubber—"face rubber," Hanson explains—that feels buttery soft and cold as a cadaver. Engineers working at night have been so unnerved by Einstein's presence they asked that it be covered up.

That delights Javier Movellan, leader of the university group that recently spent $70,000 in research grants to buy the robotic head from Hanson. Einstein will eventually be able to track people's movements with cameras that twinkle behind its pupils and judge their gender, age (well, whether they're over or under 40), if they wear glasses or have facial hair and when they're smiling. The robot is also equipped with conversational software and can hold forth while staring deep into a person's eyes. "Do you know any jokes?" Hanson asks the machine.

Einstein: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Hanson: Tell me about artificial intelligence.

Einstein: I feel real, not artificial.

Hanson: I want to hear more about the future of robotics.

Einstein: Robots will become ever more like animals and people. Robots will continue to get more amazing and cool.

Einstein is the product of a remarkable collaboration. Hanson, a robot designer and the founder of the Dallas-based firm Hanson Robotics, has used classical sculpting techniques to animate robotic likenesses of Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the apocalyptic movie Blade Runner), his own wife (he had to use a male skull model, "which masculinized her a bit") and more than a dozen other people. Movellan, a psychologist and software pioneer who runs UCSD's Machine Perception Laboratory, develops technology that approximates human senses. Einstein is, at present, a research tool to explore how a machine can perceive and react to human facial expressions; that capacity could later have many practical applications in entertainment and education, alerting the robot teachers of the future, say, that their human pupils are daydreaming.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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