Creepy Robot Can Wear Your Friends' Faces And Predict Your Emotions

"Today's computer interfaces have moved on very little from the typewriter," explains Will Jackson of Engineered Arts, a firm based out of Penryn, UK. "We have social software and a social Internet, but we don't have social hardware."

Apparently, that's what SociBot Mini is meant to be. Designed and developed by Jackson and his colleagues, the robot stands at sixty centimeters tall. Its 'face' is composed of transparent plastic, backlit by a digital projector and designed with contours for a nose, mouth, and eyes. It's equipped with a depth-sensing camera, allowing it to capture gestures and facial expressions; its on-board software allows it to work out someone's mood from their expression and even correctly guess their age. 

Currently, the robot possesses a limited understanding of speech, and is outfitted with software that allows it to hold limited conversations. Rosette - the application SociBot's chatbot software is modeled after - won the Loebner Prize in 2011, awarded for a computer's conversational capacity.

According to Jackson, the robot will ultimately become something that people enjoy working closely with, a "butler who knows you inside and out." That said, it's going to take some getting used to - particularly since the design positively screams "uncanny valley." 

"It's as spooky as all hell," says Jackson. "We've tried it with a couple of our telecommuting colleagues in meetings and when it suddenly turns and joins in the conversation as our colleague Dan, and with his face, it is quite amazing. But you get used to it quickly." 

Yeah, I...don't think that's something I'd really get used to with any sort of alacrity, and I'm certainly not alone in that. A machine capable of guessing my mood and emotion - and responding accordingly - would be fantastic, yeah...but it'd also be a little jarring to work with, particularly given all the concerns floating about regarding user privacy these days.

Think about it: a robotic butler that knows its master inside and out would be a veritable gold mine for unscrupulous marketing firms, wouldn't it?

That's a minor concern, of course, and butlering is far from the only thing a gadget like this is good for. Unnerving though they may be, robots like SociMini Bot represent an incredible step forward for video chat, according to Tony Belpaeme - a researcher at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. 

"Two dimensional video conferences are quite impoverished experiences. There is still something missing and so we prefer to meet real people. So the more you can bring that 2D experience into the 3D physical space the better the interaction will flow. Having a robot in which your face is projected, carrying all the right expressive signals, will provide an immensely strong presence, even though it will seem uncanny at first." 

I think "uncanny" is putting it lightly. The first order of business might be to improve SociBot's graphics a bit, particularly if it's going to make a habit of wearing your friend's faces. Somehow, that's still the creepiest part.  

Engineered Arts is currently planning to run a Kickstarter for SociBot Mini. If it succeeds, they'll release a cheaper, slimmed-down version designed for home use. In other words, you could soon have your very own creepy robot head sitting on your bedside table. 

Once the campaign goes live, I'll update that piece with the link. That way, those of you who somehow aren't completely traumatized by the sight of the robot can toss the team a donation for a little nightmare of your very own.