RoboThespian: The first commercial 'performing robot'
You don’t have to be paranoid to think there are eyes following you around the Cornwall warehouse that is home to Engineered Arts.
Indeed, if you were not being watched, there would be something wrong, as those eyes belong to robots made by the British company that has become an industry leader by creating humanoid, commercially available robots that can hold eye contact with you, perform Singin’ in the Rain, and guess your age – all at the same time.
Engineers are now working on making them walk, hop and jump.
Just inside the front door of the Penryn factory is a line of RoboThespians, human-sized rigid robots whose arms move while the little screens that represent their eyes follow the person in front while telling jokes in one of 30 languages.
Up to 20 of the machines, priced at between £50 000 and £55 000, are sold every year to museums, universities and companies to communicate and entertain at exhibitions, trade shows and events. The Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and Israel’s National Museum of Science, Technology and Space are among the institutions that have them.
“It was ‘make an automated presenter’,” said Will Jackson, founder of Engineered Arts. “That was the mission. It was to make something that could stand in a spot all day, every day, and tell the people things but do it in an entertaining way and use gestures.”
‘Ripe for automation’
With a background in special effects, Jackson was working on exhibitions for the Science Museum in the 1990s when he came on the need for a machine that could explain concepts and ideas to people repetitively in an entertaining fashion and not be nervous when talking to a group of people.
“It is really tedious for someone to stand in a space and repeat the same information all day every day,” he said. “It was ripe for automation.”
The RoboThespian’s movements can be controlled by a tablet. The robot can guess the mood and age of people (although years frequently appear to be shaved off) and blow kisses in the air before breaking into song.
It is, said Jackson, the first full-sized humanoid commercially available robot. – orders can usually be ready to ship within two weeks. “It is making machines that can have the properties of people,” he said. “This is key for making a performing robot. It has huge industrial applications as well because if you can make a machine, which is safe around people and it is able to behave like a person, you can then do collaborative tasks, you can start solving all kinds of other problems.”
Walking, jumping and hopping robot
The next stage of development will see the creation of Byrun, a 30kg machine about 170cm tall that will be able to walk, hop and jump. A working prototype is expected in a year, said Jackson, with five of his 14 employees focusing on creating a “strong, lightweight, but bouncy and compliant” robot.
Under the plans for the androgynous Byrun, the robot’s fingers will be sensitive to pressure and temperature. The proportions and locations of the joints are designed to make it as close to the human form as possible. Jackson expects it to cost between £350 000 and £400,000 when it comes to market and he hopes to sell about 10 a year for research and development.
Nine years after setting up the company, which Jackson and his wife own, he said his “life goal” was making a machine that performed like a person. However, his creations would never be sold to any military body, he said.
“Ethically, I am opposed to the mechanisation of death and I don’t want to get involved with anything that makes it easier to kill people from a distance, so as a company we are fundamentally opposed to any use of robots for military purposes. We get asked now and again [to sell] but we just don’t do it,” he said.
As the quality and uses for commercially available robots continue to develop, debate has increased as to what their role will be in society in the coming decades. The US thinktank the Pew Research Centre recently surveyed some 1 900 technology experts and found them split over what the future holds, but almost half reckoned both blue and white-collar workers would be significantly displaced in their jobs by robots or artificial intelligence by 2025.
Produce humanoid robots
Jackson, however, thinks we are up to 20 years away from being able to produce humanoid robots that could be cheap utility devices capable of manipulating objects.
“I don’t believe in this classic idea of robots as servants to humanity, certainly not humanoid-shaped ones. We do have robots that do a lot of utility tasks – in your home you probably have a dishwasher, you have a washing machine. Those are the robots that you are going to see around your home. You are not going to see something with two legs, not unless it is a toy. Those things are fun but they are practically useless for doing utility tasks,” he said.
“If you look at industrial robots where a lot of the humanoid technology has come from, they are designed for very, very precise position control: ‘get object from A to B, get it there within a tenth of a millimetre’. That is not how we operate, we operate in a very tactile sort of way. When you are leaning on the table, you don’t know that the table is 802.3mm high, you just know that you put your elbows there.”
In the UK, Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, recently highlighted OC Robotics, which designs and manufactures “snake-arm” robots for confined spaces, and MapleBird, which develops tiny unmanned aerial vehicles, as British companies also making prominent steps in the robotics industry.
Inquiries received by Engineered Arts on what their robots can do have varied from the quirky to the bizarre. An insurance company contacted Jackson to ask whether robots could be used to interview people who felt uncomfortable talking about their medical problems with another person.
An underwear company got in touch to find out if they could use a robot to stress test underwear that they were having durability issues with. Another query came from the Middle East where a group was looking for security guards to be based outside a desert compound armed with guns to ward off intruders. “We didn’t want to do that,” said Jackson. &ndash The Guardian