Robots Are Your Friends ... or They Will Be

Sporting one of the world's most recognizable faces and a space suit, Albert has met President Bush, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. At 4.5 feet tall and 132 pounds, Albert does tai chi, and he dances.

But Albert is not an astronaut, a politician, a diplomat, a scientist or a gym buff. Albert is a robot, one that could be coming to your home or workplace sooner than you think.

Experts believe that in 2031, robots will be a common part of our daily lives, doing things like teaching, helping with household chores, serving as our companions, and guarding us in dangerous situations.

"One type of general service public robot, whether humanoid or not, will be available at home, much like today, [where] most homes own a computer," said Jun Ho Oh, a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at the National University of Korea.

Oh is Albert's father.

The professor wanted his walking robot to have a familiar human face capable of human expression. To accomplish that, he enlisted the help of David Hanson at Hanson Robotics Inc.

Hanson, a renowned artificial intelligence researcher and robot designer, is widely regarded as the creator of the world's most realistic humanoid robots. In this case, he designed the robot's face so it would resemble physicist Albert Einstein's when he was in his 50s.

"The logic behind his choice is that Einstein's face is likely the most recognizable face in the entire world," Oh said. "It is also [a] synonym of peace and intelligence."

The face is made from a spongelike silicone-type material called Frubber. Frubber allows Albert to express a full range of emotions; it can simulate the actions of more than 48 major facial muscles.

"Frubber material allows for a range of facial expressions, from wide-eyed surprise to angry frown[s] and from smiling to looking sad," Hanson said. "It can even express the subtle difference between intense concentration to really intense concentration."

Hanson put cameras in Albert's eyes, and powerful artificial intelligence software, which helps Albert see and track human faces and moves, understand speech and hold realistic conversations. The robot can even recognize people's faces. If it doesn't recognize your face, it may ask you your name.

Oh sees privacy as a major advantage in the age of robots.

"Who heard of a robot maid writing a tell-all book?" he joked. "It should be a hit with celebrities!"

Oh believes privacy is extremely important for those who need help moving around and performing basic human tasks.

"The robot would be able to bathe people, help them dress, feed them ... without making people feel they have lost their privacy and dignity," he said. "If you have a robot, he or she won't complain."

For now, Albert is a passive robot that acts on commands and serious programming. Both Oh and Hanson agree that in 25 years, robots will be proactive and able to read their owners' intentions.

However, they warn that, along with more independent "thinking," there are safety, liability and legal issues.

"A robot ... could read the owner's intentions wrong," Oh said. "An unstable robot could cause involuntary harm, and these are issues that still need resolve."

The men disagree over the possibility of a "Terminator" scenario, where machines would take over humankind.

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