Monday, January 14, 2008

Leonardo the Lovable will one day become a cyborg baby killer

A cuddly gremlin-looking humanoid unit known as "Leonardo the Lovable" was produced by the MIT media lab in conjunction with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) a few years ago. Furry little Leonardo and other robots that use "socially-guided learning" systems were featured on a 2005 Scientific American Frontiers show. And Leonardo's older brother, Kismet, who is kinda freakish looking to me, creates human-like facial expressions from voice activation software developed by the Spoken Language Systems Group (SLS).

Still, robots like this are more Eliza-like than human-like. (Eliza was the text machine that was supposed to give responses indiscernible from responses from real people.) But if you played the game long enough you'd figure out who was the Eliza and who was the real person. Look at the gallery of very limited expressions Kismet can make. It wouldn't take more than 1 face before you would figure out who was the robot and who was the person. Leonardo is more like a stuffed animal with very exaggerated facial features like a cartoon. I mean, you can still tell the difference between Leo and real gremlins, but he is convincingly cuter than Kismet at least.

Anticipating the fakeness, the designers of the Actroid race (robots that look like famous news anchors) built in human-like imperfections. People are imperfect, and that's what makes them human. So robots who squirm and scratch would probably look more human. But, the designers warned, when the actroids get stuck in glitchy mode and start staring - people get a little nervous because they look human but almost psychotic at the same time.

Now this: DARPA is interested in advanced vision systems and socially-interactive robots because of a long-term interest in colonizing Mars. That, it seems, or counter-terrorism. What do you think?

It's pretty obvious, DARPA has been extremely interested in funding all sorts of research institutes to bring unmanned military technology to the fore. And counter-terrorism requires all sorts of personable skills for detecting the slightest differences in behavior. Another goal is, I presume, to have unmanned robots fighting wars and doing reconnaissance missions in the future.

Here is a PBS documentary about the DARPA-sponsored driver-less vehicle race. Yeah, it may be all fun and games now, but in the future these cuddly killers will be breathing down your necks and hovering over your baby cribs like in Chucky III.

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