In a giant warehouse in Reading, Massachusetts, I meet a pair of robots that look like goofy green footstools from the future. Their round eyes and satisfied grins are rendered with light emitting diodes. They sport small lidar sensors like tiny hats that scan nearby objects and people in 3D. Suddenly, one of them plays a chipper little tune, its mouth starts flashing, and its eyes morph into heart shapes. This means, I am told, that the robot is happy.
Proteus, as Amazon calls this machine, is not like other industrial robots, which are generally as expressive and aware of their surroundings as actual footstools. "Wait, why would a robot be happy?" I ask. Sophie Li, a software engineer at Amazon, explains that being able to express happiness can help Proteus work more effectively around people.
Proteus carries suitcase-sized plastic bins filled with packages over to trucks in a loading bay that is also staffed by humans. The robot is smart enough to distinguish people from inanimate objects and make its own decisions about how to navigate around a box or person in its path. But sometimes it needs to tell someone to move out of the way—or that it is stuck, which it does by showing different colors with its mouth. Li recently added the heart eyes to let Proteus also signal when it has completed a task as planned.
"Proteus will hopefully make people happy," Li says, referring to the workers who will toil alongside the robot, transferring packages from bins into trucks. "And if not, well, at least it should do what they expect it to."
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