Enter the maze

The baby robot that's uncannily human

two hands almost touch, and a spark jumps between their fingers

Can a robot learn like a baby does? Two years ago, researchers at Osaka University in Japan unveiled CB2, a robot that they hoped would think like a baby, gradually learning how to get on in the world by memorising and mimicking how it sees people behave. Behind its constantly flitting eyes are cameras that record the facial expressions of people it interacts with. CB2’s processors try and work out what the expressions mean by grouping them together in emotions such as happiness and sadness.

CB2’s creators want it to have more than just a social life, though. They’ve built it to interact with the physical world. It moves like a human with the help of 51 mechanical ‘muscles’. Since CB2 was first switched on in 1997, it’s taught itself how to walk. It can now walk across a room, even if it needs a bit of human help to do it. The researchers have big plans for CB2’s continuing education – they’re hoping that over the next two years it will learn to turn its baby-like gurgles into actual speech. They want it to have the intelligence of a two year-old and be able to speak in basic sentences.

The researchers believe that in the next few decades a new kind of robo-species will appear on the scene, with a learning ability somewhere between humans and chimps. By 2050, they figure a team of robot footballers might be able to beat a World Cup champion side. (Although teaching robots to play human games is a whole other story.)

Here’s a Japanese language TV clip of CB2 in action:

You might have noticed that the person who uploaded the YouTube video has called it ‘Creepy Child Robot’. What did you think? Did you find CB2’s baby-like movement cute, or did it creep you out a bit?

When robots make people feel repulsed despite looking very human-like, they’re deep in what researchers call ‘the uncanny valley’. A roboticist called Masahiro Mori came up with the term in 1970 when he noticed that “as robots appear more humanlike, our sense of their familiarity increases until we come to a valley”. What he meant was that in general, a robot with arms, legs and a head will seem friendlier than, say, an industrial robot that might be just an arm with a welder attached. You can keep making the robot more and more humanlike, and humans will find it friendlier until there comes a point where the robot seems almost exactly like a human, but not quite. There’s just something wrong. Perhaps the robot moves a bit strangely, or its skin looks fake. It’s at that point where the friendly feeling takes a huge dip into the uncanny valley, and people start to feel spooked. The robot’s trapped at a point where it doesn’t seem either like a robot or a human – it just seems creepy.

The idea of the uncanny valley has such power that not many roboticists try to make their robots look exactly lifelike, for fear that they’ll fall short and tumble into that creepy chasm. Some do though. David Hanson of the University of California is actively trying to jump the valley. He’s constructing a robot head that’s a perfectly lifelike model of a real person’s – his fiancée’s, no less. To do it he studied how the human face moves, poring obsessively over books of anatomy and classifications of facial expressions. He made sure to position the motors in the robotic face in exactly the right spots to make its expressions appear realistic, and when the material he was using for skin didn’t move properly he invented his own polymer.

If David does succeed in getting across the uncanny valley it will not only be a huge advancement for robotics, but could also help psychologists study how people’s facial expressions get meaning across to others. Being able to control a believable face down to each little muscle would point out the role they all play in telling other people how we’re feeling.

Robots are becoming humanlike in all sorts of ways. CB2 is learning how to cope with the world the way babies do, and perhaps one day we’ll learn how to get over the uncanny valley and have robots that look and move like humans too. Whether they’ll be thinking and moving enough like humans to take on world champion footballers, well, we’ll see. It’s weird enough having the human version of Wayne Rooney around – could we cope with a robotic one too?