When roboticist David Hanson thinks of the future, he fears that man will accidentally create a super-sentient artificial intelligence that is heartless and clinically insane.
So to save the world, he formed Hanson Robotics and built Zeno, a 17-inch robot boy, who smiles, laughs, recognizes your face and remembers your name.
Fending off the end of the world may be a heavy mantle to hang on the shoulders of a 17-inch robot that's still in prototype stage, but Hanson does call Zeno the superhero of the singularity.
"We want to be damn sure that by the time [robots] become as smart as we are, they have a conscience and compassion and that we are friends.," Hanson said. "There's no guarantee. They could be psychotic."
Zeno is himself a visitor from the future — a robot who reached consciousness in 2029, but is found by government web crawlers. From there he's put into a government academy for artificially intelligent robots, where those in charge may have nefarious motives.
"The world will need a superintelligent hero," Hanson said. "Superintelligent agents are also able to spawn technology that could destroy us all."
This narrative, crafted by Hugo award winner Tony Daniel and University of Texas performance professor Thomas Riccio, is intended to make Zeno into a character that people identify with and want to to see develop — something with the depth of a movie character or a figure from a Homerian epic.
That makes Zeno into as much of a sociological experiment as it is a technical marvel or fun toy.
"The idea is to create a cultural phenomenon and accelerate the use and humanization of the technology," Hanson said. "Robots have gotten steadily more capable but humans' expectations that robots should have minds keeps biting robot developers."
Which is to say that Hanson wants Zeno to change robots and humans.
Zeno has charmed visitors at Wired's NextFest tech celebration for the last two years, including an ongoing run in the 2008 pavilion in Chicago's Millennium park (open through Oct. 12).
Still, Zeno is clearly a work in progress, prone to hip problems, battery issues or overly long diatribes about the singularity, when a wink or smile would be more charming.
Zeno already does "know" people, and in his mind, has a knowledge container that stores a photo of the person and details about that person. The next step is getting Zeno to start making theories about the world, discarding the dumb ones and amplifying the plausible ones.
That, according to Hanson, is the essence of intelligence, and once a robot can combine that ability with the knowledge available on the internet, superintelligence won't be far off.
Hanson Robotics hopes to begin selling a mass market version of Zeno for about $300 starting sometime in 2010.