Published February 10, 2009
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Albert Einstein looked around, made eye contact and smiled.
Of course, the renowned scientist has been dead for more than 50 years, but he was reincarnated last week in the form of a so-called "empathetic robot" that pushes the boundaries of automation by being able to interact with people using emotional nuances.
The rubberized rendition of Einstein's head and shoulders with piercing movable eyes, a shock of white hair and distinctive mustache dazzled a crowd of 1,500 at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference that seeks to foster creativity among entrepreneurs, scientists and designers.
The robot Einstein follows people with his eyes and smiles or frowns as appropriate. Even up close, it looks surprisingly real.
"It's machine empathy," roboticist David Hanson told the audience. "This is a robot that can understand feeling and mimic."
Einstein got his personality three weeks ago when Hanson's contraption was married to software from the Institute for Neural Computation at the University of California, San Diego.
Einstein's creators believe that one day computers will be able to relate to people — listening and responding at a level not yet seen.
Some of the same computer techniques were used in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Ed Ulbrich, the movie's digital visual effect producer, showed the TED audience how Brad Pitt's expressions were imposed on a computer-created version of him as an old man. It was a task that involved 155 people.
The latest version of Einstein, which is the fourth evolution of the robot, was created two months ago. Earlier Hanson robots are at museums, research institutes and universities around the world.
Hanson, an artist/roboticist based in Dallas, designed Einstein to mimic all of the face's roughly 48 facial muscles. It uses 32 motors that are in some cases more versatile than the muscles they mimic. Two hidden cameras look out its life-like eyes.
Nicholas Butko, a graduate student at UC San Diego who accompanied Hanson to TED, said the goal is "to make computers that have basic perceptual capabilities — things that your brain does effortlessly that you never even think about."
The robot's software tracks 13 parameters, everything from the blink of an eye to the raise of an eyebrow or the wrinkle of a nose. More is in the works.
"One of our goals is to make a computer that can reliably tell how sincere someone's smile is," he said.