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Why Learn to Make Friends When You Can Just Buy a Social Robot?

This "affordable" humanoid could mean your robot best friend is getting closer to hanging out with you in your living room.
October 30, 2013, 6:50pm
Screenshot via Kickstarter

Humans have a quaint tendency to anthropomorphize things. We name our stuffed animals and dress them up and cry if the dog chews their head off. We continuously talk to our pets even though they never talk back. We become emotionally attached to inanimate objects—we can't help it; we're social beings. So I shudder to think how mixed up the future generations of humanity might be now that robotics firms are starting to market life-like, socially intelligent androids designed to be our friends.

The latest comes from Robokind, which recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the newest version of its interactive offspring, a two-foot droid called Zeno. The company’s hoping to raise enough money to price Zeno R25 at an "affordable" $2,700—way down from the prohibitive $14,000 or so its robots cost now. The goal is to raise $50,000 by late November to get the prototype into full-scale production by February—which means your robot best friend is getting closer to hanging out with you in your living room.

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That would be a big step toward the future of robot-human interaction, which is getting more complex as social robots become disturbingly realistic. Advanced humanoids now look, act, and emote like us—only since they can connect to the Internet, they're about a zillion times smarter. The Zeno R25 is marketed for kids, both to play with and learn from. It's expressive face can smile, frown, blink, and show anger, happiness, surprise, and so on. And it’s evolved beyond the old metallic, machine-like look thanks to its "flubber" skin—a biometric skin that contracts and folds to mimic our own facial muscles.

Zeno is equipped with eight microphones so it can "hear" you and respond. Under its moving eyelids are two cameras so it can "see" you. It can recognize your face, and remember who you are, just like an old friend. Oh, and it can walk pretty well, though developers are still working that one out.

If kids already humanize their stuffed teddy bear, imagine how attached they could get to a machine like that. It's creepy to think about, but robot developers are focusing on the positive applications of a relatable toy that has access to all the information on the web. Zeno could teach foreign languages, tell a story from any book in its massive database by memory, answer all those random and endless questions kids are prone to ask.

According to Robokind’s Kickstarter page, early tests have shown that playing with social robots can boost intelligence, and Zeno's currently being used to help kids with autism learn to better interact with others. CEO Fred Margolin says that a more affordable droid will usher in "an era where people and robots interact for entertainment, education, and social development." A robot teaching humans social skills? How backwards is that?

Man and machine living side by side, working and playing together is still a new reality, and a controversial one, no doubt egged on by the endless apocalyptic scenarios of our robot creations taking over humanity. But surely, it's the future. At this point, humanoids like Zeno and the iCub, another artificially intelligent and expressive robot, are still kids themselves when it comes to their development. The iCub is able to explore and learn from its environment through sensors the way a toddler does. The idea is, if the machine can teach itself based on observations and memory, engineers won't need to laboriously program every action and data point into the machine—it's intelligence would fly off the charts.

Eventually, developers want the robot to be able to perceive human emotions and learn empathy. Conscientious, "feeling" robots are being touted by some as the solution to social isolation. But don't we have fun, interactive machines to blame for society’s deepening social isolation as it is? Touting friendly robots as social band-aids feels like fighting fire with fire. And that's assuming they stay friendly.