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The Uncertain Future For Social Robots


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Nexi of MIT's Personal Robots Group

First in a proposed class of Mobile Dextrous Social robots, Nexi is the most high-profile project in MIT's Personal Robots Group.

Gregg Segal

Being hacked by a robot requires much less hardware than I expected. There’s no need for virtual-reality goggles or 3D holograms. There are no skullcaps studded with electrodes, no bulky cables or hair-thin nanowires snaking into my brain. Here’s what it takes: one pair of alert, blinking eyeballs.

I’m in the Media Lab, part of MIT’s sprawling campus in Cambridge, Mass. Like most designated research areas, the one belonging to the Personal Robots Group looks more like a teenage boy’s bedroom than some pristine laboratory—it bursts with knotted cables, old pizza boxes and what are either dissected toys or autopsied robots. Amid the clutter, a 5-foot-tall, three-wheeled humanoid robot boots up and starts looking around the room. It’s really looking, the oversize blue eyes tracking first, and the white, swollen, doll-like head following, moving and stopping as though focusing on each researcher’s face. Nexi turns, looks at me. The eyes blink. I stop talking, midsentence, and look back. It’s as instinctive as meeting a newborn’s roving eyes. What do you want? I feel like asking. What do you need? If I was hoping for dispassionate, journalistic distance—and I was—I never had a chance.

“Right now it’s doing a really basic look-around,” researcher Matt Berlin says. “I think it’s happy, because it has a face to look at.” In another kind of robotics lab, a humanoid bot might be motivated by a specific physical goal—cross the room without falling, find the appropriate colored ball and give it a swift little kick. Nexi’s functionality is more ineffable. This is a social robot. Its sole purpose is to interact with people. Its mission is to be accepted.

For Nexi, arguably the biggest star of the human–robot interaction (HRI) research field, fame is already synonymous with fear. Before visiting the Media Lab, I watched a video of Nexi that’s been seen by thousands of people on YouTube. Nexi rolls into view, pivots stiffly to face the camera and introduces itself in a perfectly pleasant female voice. If the goal was to make Nexi endearing, the clip is a disaster. The eyes are big and expressive, the face is childish and cute, but everything is just slightly off, like a possessed doll masquerading as a giant toddler. Or, for the existentially minded, something more deeply disturbing—a robot with real emotions, equally capable of loving and despising you. Viewers dubbed its performance “creepy.”

From Popular Mechanics
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