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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?

Hanson: Let's get into the topic of compassion.

Einstein: I don't have good peripheral vision.

Einstein: (Continuing.) I am just a child. I have a lot to learn, like what it is to truly love.

Students working nearby are singing along to a radio blasting Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It," oblivious to Einstein's plight. For me, though, there is something almost uncomfortable about watching the robot malfunction, like seeing a stranger struggle with heavy suitcases. Does this count as magic?

On a worktable nearby, something catches my eye. It is a copy of a Renaissance-era portrait of Mary and the infant Jesus—Carlo Crivelli's Madonna con Bambino, the engineers say, which another robot in the room is using to practice analyzing images. The painting is the last thing I expect to see among the piles of tools and snarls of wires, but it occurs to me that building a humanoid robot is also a kind of virgin birth. The child in the painting is tiny but already standing on its own. Mary's eyes are downcast and appear troubled; the baby stretches one foot forward, as though to walk, and gazes up.

Staff writer Abigail Tucker last wrote for the magazine about narwhals.
This is San Francisco-based photographer Timothy Archibald's first assignment for Smithsonian.

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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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