Robots are big business, these days. Robots build our cars, clean our carpets, and are going to be driving us around pretty soon. Some robots are even starting to move, look, and speak like people. Unfortunately, as with any cutting edge venture, sometimes you fly a little too close to the sun.
Today we’re going to be looking at people who undertook the ambitious project of building a convincing android – and fell tragically short. The results are a weird mixture of impressive and straight-up nightmare fuel. One day, robots may take all our jobs… but not these.
“Han” — Hanson Robotics
This recently premiered robot, “Han,” is designed to be an interactive humanoid robot. It’s a product of Hanson Robotics, a company that specializes in humanoid robots. Hanson Robotics says the robot has applications in industries like hospitality. On paper, Han is pretty sophisticated. The system uses several cameras and microphones to transcribe speech and identify the people talking to it. Its face is articulated using 40 motors, and the covering is made of Hanson Robotics’ proprietary flesh-rubber (“frubber”) material.
Unfortunately, when you see it in action, what you get is less “cheerful hotel clerk” and more “slack-eyed corpse puppet”. The frubber looks okay, but fails to capture in the intricate folding of the skin around the eyes and the mouth, turning every facial expression into some variation on a rictus.
I can’t pin down what’s up with the neck, but I hate it. Wired called it a “spookily realistic humanoid robot”. I’d say just “spooky” is closer to the truth.
Showa Hanako 2 — Dental Training Robot
The Showa Hanako 2 is a Japanese robot designed to train dentists in a more realistic environment. Unfortunately, the designers selected a weird set of priorities when it comes to realism. The lips are uncomfortably detailed, and they clearly designed the robot to be pretty — but the underlying robotic rig is simplistic and shuddery. It blinks and opens its mouth, but there’s just no emotion. You can imagine that face placidly gnawing your arm off.
The robot simulates the experience of giving a haunted sex doll a root canal. Maybe that’s useful for dentists. All I know is that I’m not putting my fingers anywhere near that mouth.
Singing Android Heads — Nathaniel Mellor
Well, this is it. Science has figured out where bad people go when they die: it’s this room, with these heads, and it’s forever.
What you see above is an art project, consisting of three robotic heads (rubber casts of the artist, Nathaniel Mellor), which sing in loose duet on a fifteen minute loop. The piece was sold in 2009 for $75,000. I’m not sure what about this piece freaks me out, per se. Maybe it’s the distressed look on the heads’ face. Maybe it’s the way they gawp blankly into the distance. Maybe it’s the way they chant the word “freedom”.
Either way, if this piece of art is intended to provoke visceral, animal fear — spot on. Holy crap.
Robotic Mouth — Kagawa University
Speech synthesis is a hard problem — the very best examples still sound a little bit clipped and awkward. Some Japanese researchers decided to try to solve the problem in a novel way, by building a model of the larynx, mouth, and nose of a human being, and physically producing speech sounds. This is an analog approach to what’s considered a digital problem.
This is an interesting idea, but, unfortunately, what was built is more along the lines of a fleshlight that can scream.
The sounds it makes don’t qualify as speech in any human language, and the pulsing rubber tube is horrifying. More disappointingly, the robot doesn’t even solve the basic problem with speech synthesizers — capturing the natural and implicit cadence of speech.
“CB2” — JST ERATO
“CB2” is a robot created to study early childhood development. The robot is covered with cameras and touch sensors, allowing researchers to collect data on it, and figure out how young humans learn to move, walk, and control their bodies.
This is an example of a robot that fails on the final hurdle. This robot is super impressive. Its underlying skeleton even looks pretty inoffensive. However, for some reason, the designers felt the need to coat the robot in a flaccid, grey-white rubber skin. The result is high-grade, unleaded nightmare fuel. It doesn’t help that the researchers succeeded in getting the robot to move like a baby, flailing limply at researchers and struggling to stand up.
Telenoid R1 — Osaka University
Okay – what’s up, Japan? Do you want to talk about it? Because this is getting weird.
This machine is a telepresence robot designed by Osaka University. It’s remotely piloted by someone using webcam software. It’s intended to provide a more tactile, physical telepresence experience than Skype. This all sounds pretty reasonable, but…
There are so many confusing design decisions here! There’s the flippers, the featureless face, the blank eyes, the smooth white skin. The way it needs a therapeutic rack to stand up. The fact that it speaks with a grown man’s voice makes it worse. It’s like being haunted by the ghost of a thalidomide baby.
What’s the target market here? People who want to Skype with their grandmother, but also want her to look like Voldemort’s soul? If this thing ever goes on sale, it might be a good idea for the police to you know, have a chat with the customers. Maybe check out the shed.
Whatever This Thing Is
I feel kind of bad for making fun of this robot, because it’s clearly someone’s hobby project. This isn’t a big company trying to sell a ridiculous product, this is somebody in a garage doing his best. To be clear: doing things is better than not doing things.
This video is pretty much an episode of “How It’s Made” about night terrors, but the guy who built this is at least 50% cooler than either of us. He built a robot head! It may be a spasming horror, but it’s still a robot head. I guarantee this guy is interesting — he has a whole YouTube channel of this stuff. He built a robot head! How is that less than completely awesome?
To end this article on a high note, here’s a song to play us out. It’s worth appreciating anyone who tries to do something amazing — even when they fall short. These robots are the most horrifying things I know about, but they do represent legitimate attempts to push the cutting edge forward with robotics.
Did I miss something upsetting? What’s the most convincing humanoid robot you’ve ever seen? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: futuristic robot via Shutterstock