A group of engineers, designers and programmers at Hanson Robotics in Texas have created a 17-inch tall, 6-pound robot boy bearing the same name as the company's founder's 18-month-old son, Zeno.
Unlike Zeno the human boy, Zeno the robot can't speak or walk yet, but its blinking eyes can track people moving about and it has a face that captivates with a variety of expressions.
Hanson Robotics' founder, David Hanson, and his colleagues believe there's an emerging business in the design and sale of lifelike robotic companions, or "social" robots. They will show robot Zeno to third- through 12th-grade students Thursday in Los Angeles at the Wired NextFest technology conference.
Hanson says he envisions Zeno not as a clearly artificial robotic toy, but as an interactive learning companion, a synthetic pal who can engage in conversation and convey human emotion through a face made of a skin-like, patented material Hanson calls frubber, Xinhuanet reports.
"It's a representation of robotics as a character animation medium, one that is intelligent," Hanson beams. "It sees you and recognizes your face. It learns your name and can build a relationship with you."
It's no coincidence if the whole concept sounds like a science-fiction movie.
Hanson said he was inspired by, and is aiming for, the same sort of realism found in the book "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," by Brian Aldiss. Aldiss' story of troubled robot boy David and his quest for the love of his flesh-and-blood parents was the source material for Steven Spielberg's film "Artificial Intelligence: AI."
He plans to make little Zenos available to consumers within the next three years for $200 to $300.
Until then, Hanson, 37, makes a living selling and renting pricey, lifelike robotic heads. His company offers models that look like Albert Einstein, a pirate and a rocker, complete with spiky hair and sunglasses. They cost tens of thousands of dollars and can be customized to look like anyone, Hanson said.
The company, which has yet to break even, was also buoyed by a $1.5 million grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund last October. The fund was created by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005 to improve research at Texas universities and help startup technology companies get off the ground.
Hanson concedes it's going to be at least 15 years before robot builders can approach anything like what seems to be possible in movies. Zeno the robot remains a prototype.
During a recent demonstration, Zeno could barely stand and had to be tethered to a bank of PCs that told it how to smile, frown, act surprised or wrinkle its nose in anger.
Robotics, Hanson believes, should be about artistic expression, a creative medium akin to sculpting or painting. But convincing people that robots should look like people instead of, well, robots, remains a challenge that robot experts call the "uncanny valley" theory.
The theory posits that humans have a positive psychological reaction to robots that look somewhat like humans, but that robots made to look very realistic end up seeming grotesque instead of comforting, the AP reports.