Robots that can help out around the house haven't evolved much past mowing the lawn or vacuuming the floor yet. But a new robot that can crack jokes, call for help, and read your mood is now working behind the counter as a receptionist in Singapore.
And when it keeps its mouth shut, it looks eerily convincing.
Researchers at Nanyang Technological University presented their latest humanoid robot named Nadine earlier this month. It's built to act like a companion by answering questions in a more personalized way than automated smartphone assistants like Siri and Cortana.
“Nadine is aware of the environment," says Nadia Thalmann, a computer engineering professor and director of the Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang. "Depending on what you say she can be more mad or more pleasant."
Thalmann says that Nadine's dose of personality isn't just a fancy touch, it'll be an important communication tool for helping the elderly and responding to emergencies. She says Nadine is best equipped to become a service robot, dialing 9-1-1 when someone falls and can't get up, or helping people read directions.
And the bot can do it all with a little bit of flair.
“If somebody’s sick, [Nadine can] speak in a different way than when they're getting married,” says Thalmann.
And sensitive, sweet tones aren't the only ones Nadine can adopt. If you decide, for example, to tell Nadine that it's just a dumb robot, it will start to sound more irritated by asking why you would say such a thing. Then, finally, Nadine might just cut you off, saying it doesn't want to talk anymore. Of course, if you apologize, Nadine can forgive... though the bot won't forget. It's all part of the design to make Nadine seem more like a companion.
In terms of appearance, the robot is built as a young white woman with short brown hair and strangely large hands. It has relatively lifelike skin and lips. And if you think Nadine and her creator, Thalmann, look alike, it's because the bot was modeled to look like a younger version of Thalmann herself.
The researchers admit Nadine still has a long way to go to becoming fully aware of its surroundings. The bot doesn't always understand what it's being asked, and sometimes just says, "I obviously don't pass the test."
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Nadine also speaks with a hint of a Scottish brogue. But she often pauses to process in-coming data and moves her mouth more like a puppet than a human. And while Nadine does sing, the bot is a bit more tone-deaf than pitch-perfect.
Nadine was built in collaboration with Kokoro, a subsidiary of Hello Kitty makers Sanrio Corporation. It is the same Japanese animatronics company that debuted the lifelike 'Actroid' robot back in 2003 designed to blink, breathe and respond to questions. Thalmann says the company's considering using the software from Nadine in some Chinese museums. But even as the idea is being considered commercially, back at Nanyang, researchers will continue to perfect their tech.
Nadine is just one of a growing international breed of life-sized helper bots. In July, another Japanese company, the Weird Hotel, started using service robots for everything from a dinosaur-inspired reception staff to robo-bellhops. French company Aldebaran is developing a desktop-sized home companion called Nao that can recognize and respond to speech. The Iranian team building Surena has pioneered one of the most flexible, able-bodied walking, talking robots around and Spanish Pal robotics builds customized worker bots for companies. Honda has been developing its humanoid, Asimo for the past fifteen years.
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But none of these humanoid robots coming to market have been designed with a lifelike appearance like Nadine's. “You see these traditional, superhero robots” all the time, Thalmann says. "I think if we had more women in robotics, we'd have more of these humanoid robots." She says that'll be important as we create more coaching machines people can live and bond with.
Of course, that's as long as Nadine doesn't stumble on the creep factor and get stuck in the 'uncanny valley' of humanoid tech.