More Cute Than Smart, for Now
Fortunately for you, this is a slideshow of the former. Not all robots will eventually become smart enough to replicate themselves and then decide to eliminate people because of "human error"--plenty of cute and helpful robots, designed to lighten people's moods, are out there. Keepon, for example, is a charming little yellow robot that interacts with children. And the Toyota Violin-Playing Robot uses its musical talents to soothe medical patients. Read on to learn about them and other friendly automatons.
PaPeRo (short for "Partner-type Personal Robot") is an adorable personal-companion robot, created by the Japanese technology company NEC. PaPeRo was designed as a more natural way for people to interact with the Internet--it can recognize and speak over 3000 words, notify its owner of incoming messages, give updated information, recognize faces, send video messages, dance, play games, and remotely control other electronic devices.
PaPeRo features two cameras for eyes, four microphones for ears, an ultrasound device in its chest for detecting objects, and three wheels for mobility. PaPeRo also learns from its environment, and has a number of different "personalities" that come out depending on how people treat it. For example, if people ignore it and don't interact with it, PaPeRo will become lazy and listless--but if people talk to it and answer its questions, it will be helpful and serious about doing its job. PaPeRo is currently in prototype mode and is not available for sale.
If you're allergic to cats but you just can't keep yourself away (I know quite a few people who own cats despite their obvious allergies), the latest in Sega toy robot technology might be for you. Yume Neko, which literally translates to "Dream Cat," is a robot cat that moves around, lies down, and responds to touch just as a real cat does.
Designed to look like a Norwegian Forest Cat, Yume Neko Venus has a light sensor hidden in its forehead, touch sensors scattered throughout its body, and microphones so that it can respond to your voice (example: say "there, there" in Japanese, and Yume Neko Venus will purr). If you don't play with it, the cat falls asleep and goes into low-power mode. Yume Neko Venus is currently available in Japan for 10,000 yen (about $110), or from specialty online stores such as Japan Trend Shop for $176.
Sega Toys' E.M.A. Robot (for Eternal Maiden Actualization, but pronounced "Emma") is flirtatious and interactive, and features a "love" mode--if you put your head close to the robot, it will "kiss" you. That's right, E.M.A. is a little minx.
The 15-inch-tall, battery-powered robot has unique leg joints that make its hips sway when it walks. The robot can sing, dance, and greet you, as well as hand out business cards. It also has infrared sensors to ensure that it doesn't run into anything as it dances and sways about. E.M.A. is designed for adults, and costs about $175.
Want a puppy without the mess?
The Sony AIBO (Artificial Intelligence roBOt) is a dog robot with the ability to learn from its environment. AIBO looks like a shiny space-dog and comes in a variety of colors--including black, silver, gold, red, blue, green, and white. AIBO is not only a virtual pet but also an inexpensive AI-research platform for amateur and professional computer programmers; Sony even released a programmer's kit (for noncommercial use), which includes a set of free tools for users to reprogram their virtual puppies. First released in 1999, AIBO was retired in 2006 (though Sony will offer support until 2013).
Perhaps the most unexciting robots on this list hardware-wise, Tweenbots were part of a social experiment performed by NYU student Kacie Kinzer. They were little cardboard robots that traveled at a set speed in one direction--straight. Each robot had a hand-drawn smiley face and a flag with a destination printed on it (as well as instructions for whoever encountered the Tweenbot to please guide it in the right direction).
Kinzer set the Tweenbots loose on the streets of Manhattan to see how people--New Yorkers, no less--would react to adorable, vulnerable robots. She found that people in New York are far friendlier than their stereotype: Not once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged, and all reached their destinations, assisted only by strangers. People who encountered the Tweenbots would even sometimes ignore the instructions on the flag, if doing so would put the robot in danger (such as sending it into traffic). Of course, the success of the Tweenbots was probably helped by the fact that they were really, really cute. Tweenbots are not currently for sale.
What better way to help autistic kids come out of their shells than with a sweet yellow snowman that bobs to musical beats? Say hello to Keepon, a small robot created by Hideki Kozima at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Kyoto, Japan, and Marek Michalowski from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Keepon, which has two cameras for eyes, four motors, and a microphone for its nose, was initially designed to study social development and human-robot interaction by interacting with children. Keepon has been especially effective in its interactions with children who have developmental disorders, such as autism, and it recently won Carnegie Mellon's "Smiley Award" as a result. Apparently, Keepon is also an international pop sensation, and is featured in a number of YouTube music videos in which it dances to Spoon songs. Keepon is currently available for $30,000--a price that reflects its intended role for research institutions looking to assess human-robot behavior.
Tiro is a yellow humanoid robot with an LED face, created by a number of companies, including Hanool Robotics of South Korea, and four science universities. Tiro is an intelligent service robot with several careers under its belt--including teacher and wedding MC.
Tiro served as a guest instructor for a 30-minute English class at Euon Primary School in Daejeon, South Korea. It asked questions in English, such as "How many giraffes are there on the board?" Tiro also acted as the officiant and master of ceremonies at Hanool Robotics engineer Seok Gyeong-jae's wedding; a number of other robots worked the event, too, as ushers and assistants. Tiro is priced at 200 million won, or $176,400.
The Fujitsu HOAP-3 is a humanoid robot capable of learning by interacting with its environment--watching people move, mimicking the movements of humans, or memorizing the way its limbs are physically manipulated by humans.
The HOAP-3 helps researchers analyze how well a robot might adapt to a human environment. The 60cm (23.6-inch) robot, which runs an RT-Linux OS with a 1.1GHz Pentium M processor, features two cameras, a microphone, LEDs (for displaying expressions), an accelerometer, a foot-bottom sensor, a grasping-power sensor, a distance sensor, and 28 joints. It's also capable of speech recognition and speech synthesis, and supports radio control. It has no price tag at the moment.
Toshiba Wheelie Robot
Not only is this robot cute (it looks sort of like Rosie from The Jetsons), but it's totally practical, too--it has a flat head on which it can carry things. You know, things like food, drinks, and a remote control. Sure, it can't actually pick up those objects (someone will have to place them on its head), but it's one step closer to a world where you never have to get up from your couch.
The Toshiba Wheelie robot sports two wheels, retractable runners on the front and back (to keep it from toppling over and spilling your dinner all over the carpet), stereo cameras, and a laser range finder to prevent it from running into furniture or walls. Its usefulness is limited--all it can really do is carry things from one room to another--but it's still adorable, and I would love to have one. The Wheelie is currently in experimental mode, and is not for sale.