Sun, Jan 21, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Hong Kong-made lifelike robots designed to win over humans

A former Disney sculptor aims to create robots that use artificial intelligence to complete a variety of tasks, such as helping with therapy for autistic children and caring for older people

By Kelvin Chan  /  AP, HONG KONG

Hanson Robotics Ltd founder David Hanson bites an apple held by the company’s flagship robot, Sophia, in Hong Kong on Sept. 28 last year.

Photo: AP

David Hanson envisions a future in which artificial intelligence (AI)-powered robots evolve to become “super-intelligent genius machines” that might help solve some of humanity’s most challenging problems.

If only it were as simple as that.

The Texas-born former sculptor at Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development Inc and his Hong Kong-based start-up Hanson Robotics Ltd are combining AI with southern China’s expertise in toy design, electronics and manufacturing to craft humanoid “social robots” with faces designed to be lifelike and appealing enough to win trust from humans who interact with them.

Hanson, 49, is perhaps best known as the creator of Sophia, a talk show-going robot partly modeled on Audrey Hepburn that he calls his “masterpiece.”

Akin to an animated mannequin, she seems as much a product of his background in theatrics as an example of advanced technology.

“You’re talking to me right now, which is very Blade Runner, no?” Sophia said during a visit to Hanson Robotics’ headquarters in a suburban Hong Kong science park, its home since shortly after Hanson relocated there in 2013.

“Do you ever look around you and think: ‘Wow, I’m living in a real-world science fiction novel?’” she asked. “Is it weird to be talking to a robot right now?”

Hanson Robotics has made about a dozen copies of Sophia, who like any human is a work in progress. A multinational team of scientists and engineers are fine-tuning her appearance and the algorithms that enable her to smile, blink and refine her understanding and communication.

Sophia has moving 3D-printed arms and, with the help of a South Korean robotics company, she is now going mobile. Shuffling slowly on boxy black legs, Sophia made her walking debut in Las Vegas last week at the CES trade show.

Her skin is made of a nanotech material that Hanson invented and dubbed “Frubber,” short for flesh-rubber, that has a flesh-like bouncy texture. Cameras in her eyes and a 3D sensor in her chest help her to “see,” while the processor that serves as her brain combines facial and speech recognition, natural language processing, speech synthesis and a motion control system.

Sophia seems friendly and engaging, despite the unnatural pauses and cadence in her speech.

Her predecessors include an Albert Einstein, complete with bushy mustache and white thatch of hair; a robot named Alice, whose grimaces run a gamut of emotions; and one eerily resembling late science fiction author Philip K. Dick who won an award from the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. They variously leer, blink, smile and even crack jokes.

Disney’s venture capital arm is an investor in Hanson, which is building a robot based on one of the entertainment giant’s characters.

An artist and robotics scientist, Hanson worked on animatronic theme park shows, sculpting props and characters for Disney attractions like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Mermaid Lagoon. He studied film, animation and video, eventually earning a doctorate in interactive arts and technology from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Hanson said he makes his robots as human-like as possible to help alleviate fears about robots, AI and automation.

That runs contrary to a tendency in the industry to use cute robo-pets or overtly machine-like robots like Star Wars’ R2-D2 to avoid the “uncanny valley” problem with human likenesses, such as wax models and robots that many people find a bit creepy.

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