Think of robots and you’re unlikely to think of a tiny cardboard box perched on a set of motorised wheels. But that is precisely what Boxie is. The pint-sized robot is vaguely reminiscent of a toy car with a friendly face drawn on it — a simpler version of Disney’s Wall-E. Speaking with a child-like voice, Boxie’s primary goal is to talk to people. The robot travels around the world and asks people questions that are designed to make them reflect on their values and beliefs, such as “If there was no money and no law, what would be the first thing that you would do?” or “Tell me something that you’ve never told a stranger before.”
According to Boxie’s creator, Alexander Reben, a kinetic engineer and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, people tend to open up to the diminutive robot. Some become emotional, a handful even come over all tearful. “There’s a belief that robots make people less sociable, but what we wanted to do is to amuse people, to make them more human and more social,” says Reben, who believes that Boxie could ultimately become a human companion in the same way that a pet is.
Boxie is one of around 30 creations currently on show in the Robot Ball, an exhibition in Moscow showcasing the robotic works of engineers and inventors from around the world. They tend to fall into two camps: those that are functional and those that are designed to emulate human behaviour. In the former group, there are robots like Mondospider, an emissions-free, arachnid-shaped tank that serves as a people carrier, and others like Cubic, a personal assistant created by Russia’s Cubic Robotics, that have been designed to make everyday life that little bit easier.
A more sophisticated version of Apple’s Siri, the cube-shaped gadget responds to commands to read the latest news or to switch off the light, making it an ideal addition to the smart home of the future. “We believe that people are lazy and if there’s a gadget that allows them to order pizza or know the weather without switching on a computer or a smartphone, then they’ll use it,” says Andrei Gryaznov, a Cubic Robotics engineer. But there’s more. Cubic can not only keep up a basic conversation and respond to jokes but it can even throw in a few one-liners as well.
“We believe that people are lazy and if there’s a gadget that allows them to order pizza or know the weather without switching on a computer or a smartphone, they’ll use it”
For Gor Nakhapetyan, the exhibition's organiser and an advisor to Skolkovo, Russia's centre for innovative technologies, the incorporation of such robots into our daily lives will allow for more time to focus on creative endeavours. “By showing robots from all over the world, we hope to inspire Russia's younger generation to create the types of robots that will relieve people from doing monotonous and needless jobs,” he said. “This way, we can all engage in creative work only.” It’s still a way to go before robots such as Cubic become an indispensable part of our lives but the engineers and designers at the Robot Ball are in no doubt that they will. “We can't say for sure what they will look like,” says Igor Nikitin, one of the exhibition’s organisers. “But just like in 1993 when people couldn’t imagine that all phones would be smartphones, a number of new robots will be created that will do different types of work.”
Other robots, like Boxie, are intended to test the ELIZA effect, the tendency to athropomorphise computers and therefore engage with them as humans. An example given by US professor of cognitive science Richard Hofstadter is to interpret an ATM’s “Thank you” message at the end of a transaction as gratitude even though it’s simply a preprogrammed response. Following this logic, robots made by Neurobotics are designed to look and move like humans. One of Russian firm’s robots is an Alexander Pushkin lookalike who recites poetry by the poet, its silicon face subtly expressing a range of human emotions from sadness to surprise.
Of all those at the ball, one of the most human-like is RoboThespian, a life-size humanoid robot created by British engineers to perform on stage and to provide guided tours in museums. Unlike robots like Cubic, designed for domestic servitude, RoboThespian is intended to entertain and educate. It can be controlled via an online interface from anywhere in the world, interact with humans independently by scouring the internet for answers to questions, recognise faces, sing and dance. The gracefully moving machine can be bashful, friendly or bored depending on the situation. It can even blush when an attractive woman walks past. “Android robots such as Thespian demonstrate well the full range of technologies available,” says Nikitin.
Although the technology is developing at a rapid pace, it’s still a long way off before robots will be able to develop and display emotions in the same way as humans. Last year, British scientists developed the Experimental Functional Android Assistant, or efAA, a socially intelligent humanoid that has been designed not only to recognise and respond to human emotion but also to develop empathy. “It’s quite possible to have robots that exhibit strong emotions,” says Ray Taylor, one of the exhibition’s organisers. “And it will be possible to teach robots to be able to identify human emotions in the future.”