"Friend robots" could be in your future

Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.
Future friend robot: If roboticists have their way, in the future something like this could be your best friend.Courtesy Roberto Rizzato ►pix jockey◄ Facebook resident (with adaptation by author)
Remember HAL 9000, the super-computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey ? Remember how creeped-out you felt listening to his soothing, matter-of-fact voice during his conversations with his astronaut masters - especially when his circuitry started to go haywire? In the end, it turned out, HAL wasn't much of a friend. Well, you may get the same creepy feeling watching this fascinating conversation between Vermont humanoid Bina48 and New York Time's reporter Amy Harmon.

Created by Hanson Robotics, Bina48 is a “friend robot”, a potential cyborg companion to help us humans while away the lonely hours of existence. Actually, she's a mass of wires and motors encased in a bust of "frubber", which, according to Bina48 herself, could stand for face rubber, or flesh rubber, or maybe fancy rubber. The flexible material and robotic inner workings allow it to mimic visual cues of human emotions, like smiles, frowns, and confused or amazed looks. In the Times article, its maker claims robots like Bina48 can “can make for genuine emotional companions”.

Bina48's programmers loaded her memory with tons of information and experiences derived from the real live Bina Rothblatt, a co-founder (along with her spouse Martine) of the Terasem Movement Foundation, an organization who's flagship project Lifenaut.com is defined as an “immortality social networking Web site” that helps subscribers achieve a measure of immortality through science and nanotechnology. I think how it works is you submit Body File data (DNA), and Mind File data (digital memories and memorabilia) to the site and create a sort of cyber-you that will live forever on the Internet. Hopefully, not in some horrible, banking site. Your DNA is preserved for future possibilities of creating a new analog “you”. I admit the notion piques my interest, and I think there could be a good chance you’ll be seeing a MDR59 or a JGordon27 in the next couple years, but that’s fodder for a future post.

But back to our main topic...

Bina48 lives (or rather, is housed) at the Terasem Movement Foundation office, in Bristol, Vermont. The thing is not perfect by any means, and if you watch the video, you have to admit a conversation with Bina48 is kind of a strange experience. It stammers, hesitates, and clams up when confused, and at times seems to show no interest at all, and rarely makes eye contact with the reporter. But once in a while it answers questions coherently and intelligently (in a way it reminded me of conversations I’ve had with someone stricken with Asperger syndrome). Sometimes, despite her apparent inability to always stay “engage” in the conversation, Bina48 does show hints of a sense of humor (e.g. plans to over the world), and an occasional aching to become a real (or better) person. There’s something quite human about that. So I think the idea of“friend robots” show lots of promise of becoming something pretty cool when all the glitches and bugs are finally eliminated. But without any foibles, could they actually be considered human?

NY Time article by Amy Harmon

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

JGordon27 already exists. He and his 26 cardboard brothers "live" in my attic. And I hate them.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 9:38am
bryan kennedy's picture

Another mdr photoshop masterpiece! Such great fodder for the future you.

I have to admit that your description of the robot's ability to cary on a conversation matches some of my more shy friends. I wonder if they are trying to invent a robot that really mimics human behavior, which would, of course, have to include that awkward guy you know, who can't get out a thought.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 9:44am
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Thanks Bryan. The photo actually creeps me out a little. I suppose it's like how most people don't like (or recognize) the sound of their own voice when they hear a recording of it. I bet the real Bina feels the same way when she sees or interacts with her cyber-doppelgänger.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 12:20pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

You know what this actually reminds me of? Back in the day (the day being the early-/mid-nineties) the sound card on my family's computer came with a program called Dr. Sbaitso. You'd type in questions, and the good doctor would sort of answer them in a robot voice.

Mostly it was just fun to make him say swear words.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 9:50am
bryan kennedy's picture

The ability to sing-song a really large number with the correct prefixes is the first thing that's ever made me wish I had a computer brain.

posted on Wed, 07/07/2010 - 10:17am
Shana's picture
Shana says:

Domo arigatou Mr. Roboto
Domo arigatou Mr. Roboto
Domo arigatou Mr. Roboto

also, that reminds me of Socrates.

posted on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 10:22am

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