RoboThespian engrossed in conversation.

Will Jackson’s RoboThespian is a life-sized humanoid robot that is designed to communicate with members of the public in museums and public spaces. Various universities around the world have also used it for research into the interaction between robots and humans. RoboThespian is able to recognise faces in a crowd, give information and answer questions. He can even sing. While many people have marvelled at RoboThespian’s abilities others have taken deep offence to him. Humans Invent spoke to Jackson to find out how RoboThespian works and the pros and cons of humanoid robots in comparison to more abstract systems.

What kind of robotics do you make and for what purpose?

We’ve been building humanoid robots now for about 5 or 6 years. Currently, we have them installed in 14 countries. They’re a communication robot basically and it came out of work, with Paul Spooner. Paul and I did several projects together, where Paul designed some big figures and I did a lot of the automation for it. What we were looking for was a way of telling stories so it is an extension of the automata that you see on the small scale.

People are using it for studying human-robot interaction

It’s since developed into quite a sophisticated platform and a lot of universities now use it: University of Florida – we’re just shipping one out to them today – North Carolina, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Barcelona University – they all use it as a research platform even though we never intended it for that. We intended it for entertainment. It started out as more of an arts project than a technology one, but it has kind of drifted in the technology direction.

What kind of research is it used for?

If you want to get into the technical detail, the application programming interface (API) is open, which means you can extend the software with software of your own. Generally, people are using it for studying what they call HRI, (human-robot interaction). It is basically researching how people interact socially with machines, which sounds like an odd field of study but it is pretty relevant to the way the modern world is going. If you imagine life is more and more about how we interface with our technology and if you can you’re your technology more intuitive and make interacting with a machine like interacting with another person rather than typing on a keyboard or dragging your finger on a touchscreen, you have a much more natural way of working with technology.

People are also using our robot as avatars, so Barcelona University and North Carolina have both done work on using it as a remote presence. You see what the robot sees from a remote location, you talk through it and it tracks your body movements so you can make gestures. Their general set up is a motion-capture suit and a BR headset on somebody at one end and the robot is their presence at the other end.

What else is RoboThespian used for?

Our biggest customers for robots are generally museums, science centres etc. We also have a partner company in Korea, who do a lot of stage shows with robots. They have three of our robots whizzing round on little wheely platforms on stage. They are also doing a robot restaurant in Seoul, where robots cook all the food and robots take your order. Our robots are going to be part of that, doing the stage show actually that you get to watched why you eat your robot served dinner.

NASA use it at Kennedy space centre, it talks about space exploration and that’s basically automating what a tour guide would do and adding a bit of fun to the experience.

We’ve got a two year project to make a walking, running, jumping version

The other big application we’ve got is for corporates and businesses who use it for promoting products. There is a company we work with called AEGIS who make plastic bearings and they’ve got a big stand in Hanover and they’ve got one of our robots on their stand chatting about plastic bearings. It makes plastic bearings a lot more interesting. This is the sort of place where you would never imagine seeing a robot but it draws a big crowd and people really love it.

Are they expensive?

Our off the shelf price is about £55,000, we also rent them out for a day or lease them for a year. We are about the only company I know in the world who have full size humanoid robots in stock. If you want one next week I can sell you one. There aren’t really many other companies that do that.

What is unique about RoboThespian?

It is unique in that it is designed for entertainment and human interaction applications so if you walk past it, it looks at you and it will try and work out what you are doing. It can see 14 to 15 people standing around and it will flick it’s gaze and attention between them. It is designed to be as natural in its behaviour as possible. Also, from a technical point of view, it’s a hybrid robot, so it is partly pneumatic and partly electric. Most robots are one or the other and generally they are all electric. If you look at Disney animatronics, some of those are pneumatic, but it’s very rare to see a hybrid but we use both kinds of actuators.

We’ve now got a two year project to make a full walking, running, jumping version partly funded by Technology Strategy Board in the UK. We’ve also been developing a smaller half-body robot which has got a projected face,  called Sociobot and that is much more designed for kiosk applications, retail, that kind of thing. The other thing the robots can do is recognise age, gender, the expression on your face and they do that very fast for a large crowd of people.

How do they do that?

We have this piece of software called SHORE that was developed by Fraunhofer and it does it by basically using a lot of data from a big database of faces, finding out which you look closest to and it can also extract from that what you’re likely face expression is – it does all this very, very quickly so you can pick up where somebody is, whether they are male or female, your age and whether you are happy or angry, neutral or disinterested. You can use that information to guide what the robot does (cf. with Tailored Advertising).

RoboThespian getting a bit cheeky.

Will all robots be humanoid in the future?

It depends what you want to do. In Star Wars, the original one C-3PO is the big humanoid one and R2-D2 is the utility robot that does useful stuff. Lucas had it spot on there. If you want a utility robot to wash your dishes, you’ve probably already got one: it’s a square box with a door on the front. It does not have arms and legs. You will never see a humanoid robot hoovering your floor unless you are stupidly rich and don’t mind spending far too much money. It’s just not a practical proposition to make humanoid robots do human utility tasks.

If you think, who are the best paid people in the world and who are the lowest paid people? The lowest paid is domestic service, washing up jobs etc so why on earth would you make a really expensive robot to do low paid work? It doesn’t add up financially, and then look at who are the best paid and also arguably, the easiest jobs, you could look at Hollywood actors, such as Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, who are paid a fortune, do they have to do anything particularly difficult? Alright, they are good actors but there is no super difficult skill set required there. On that rationale we think it’s better to make robots to imitate very highly paid and easy to do jobs rather than very low paid and difficult to do jobs.

Do you ever get negative comments about your robots?

We had someone try to punch one of our robots once. That was quite funny, it was somebody in Germany who took deep offence to it and was trying to attack it. I’ve heard another story, it wasn’t one of our robots, but a guy took offence because he thought the robot had looked at his girlfriend’s tits basically and tried to attack it. They said the robot always had a habit of looking low which caused this problem. It never made eye contact, it always looked at people’s mid body.

What I find really interesting about that is that people will take offence about some perceived slight from a machine, you wouldn’t ever attack a toaster because you though it had made some lewd gesture at your wife. Why on earth would you attack this other shaped lump of metal, it’s no different really but as soon as you put eyes and a face on something and start giving it human characteristics, people interpret it in a completely different way and I think that is what we find really interesting, exploiting that desire to anthropomorphise. Really you are exploiting people’s desire to see humanity where there is none.


For more information go to RoboThespian


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The World in 2112 Workshop: Robotics

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