Albert Einstein has not only been born again, he is even more empathetic and happier than he was when he lived. Although only his head and shoulders live, this rubberized version of the genius smiles or frowns and has eyes that follow underneath the trademark Einstein shock of white hair and above the full moustache that were so much a part of his persona.
Its creator, Dallas artist David Hanson, told a crowd of 1,500 people gathered at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference (TED), which is an organization that seeks to foster creativity among entrepreneurs, scientists and designers:
“It’s machine empathy. This is a robot that can understand feeling and mimic it.”
This latest version of Einstein, which is the fourth evolution of the robot, was created in December of 2008. Earlier Hanson robots are at museums, research institutes and universities around the world. Einstein’s personality was born when software from the Institute for Neural Computation at the University of California, San Diego was united with Hanson’s robot.
This robot represents a new frontier in the world of robotics because it is believed (especially by Hanson) that one day in the not so distant future, computers will be able to really relate to people; listening and responding at a level not yet seen. Hanson designed his Einstein to mimic all of the 48 muscles in the face by utilizing 32 motors and two hidden cameras, which look out of the life-like eyes. The robot's software tracks 13 parameters, everything from the blink of an eye to the raise of an eyebrow or even the slightest wrinkle of a nose.
According to Nicholas Butko, a graduate student at UC San Diego who accompanied Hanson to the special TED conference:
“The goal is to make computers that have basic perceptual capabilities- things that your brain does effortlessly and that you never even think about. Another is to make a computer that can reliably tell how sincere someone’s smile is.”
It is most interesting to note some of the same computer techniques used to create an engaging and life-like Albert Einstein, were also utilized in the special effects of the popular movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Attending that same TED conference where Hanson presented his Einstein was Ed Ulbrich, the movie's digital visual effect producer. He demonstrated how Brad Pitt’s expressions were imposed on a computer-created version of him as an old man. He also explained that it was a monumental task, involving 155 technicians!
Albert Einstein has come a long way from the original concept of the robot, which is actually a very old idea dating back to 270 BC and a Greek engineer named Ctesibus who constructed water clocks with movable figures. In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein an enduring classic about an artificial life form. The word, robot was invented in the 20th century from the Czechoslovakian word robota or robotnik, meaning slave, servant, or forced labor, and was first used in a 1921 play called “R.U.R” or Rossum's Universal Robots written by Karel Capek. The plotline concerned a homicidal robot that kills his creator.
There are many, but some of the more important dates as far as robots are concerned would have to include the achievements of George Devol and Joseph Engelberger who in 1956 formed the world's first robot company. Also, in 1959, for the first time, computer-assisted manufacturing was demonstrated at the Servomechanisms Lab at MIT. In 1961, UNIMATE, the first industrial robot was on display in a General Motors automobile factory in New Jersey. The first robotic arm controlled by a computer was designed in 1963. The Rancho Arm was designed as a tool for the handicapped and its six joints gave it the flexibility of a human arm.
In general terms, a robot is a machine that functions in place of a human being. This can be particularly desirable when the chores at hand are monotonous and tiring, uncomfortable and even dangerous. Robots do not require air or safety belts or vacation time to thrive. In addition, they are not distracted by robots of opposite genders or tax returns or in-laws or anything of that nature.
Although many might consider robots to be auxiliary machinery, they are quite different. Robots usually can function by themselves, which most machines cannot. They are also sensitive to their environment, can adapt to variations within it and often have the ability to try different methods to accomplish goals, which no mere machine can ever do.
The industrial robots of three and four decades ago handled radioactive material in atomic labs and were known as master/slave manipulators. They were usually connected with steel cables. Today, robots operate within highly structured environments, performing highly repetitive tasks that are mostly pre-programmed. As of 1998, the world could claim an estimated total of 720,000 industrial robots.
The robots of today are rather sophisticated (with minds of their own, so to speak). Due to the fact that many of them have advanced sensory systems that process information, they appear to function as if they have brains. What is referred to as their “brain” is in reality a form of computerized artificial intelligence (AI). This permits a robot to perceive conditions and decide upon a course of action based on those conditions.
Robots may also fit into the tele-operated category. This refers to robots that function within semi-structured environments such as undersea and nuclear facilities. They perform non-repetitive tasks and have limited real-time control. As the world of technology expands so do the boundaries and limitations of artificial intelligence. Frontiers are constantly diminishing as robots explore the perilous depths of the sea, the unknowns of outer space, and the intricacies of the human body.
It would seem that robots are limited only by the boundaries of the human imagination. Does this mean there are even more marvels in store for us in future? The answer can only be:
“Elementary, my dear Einstein, and very relative indeed!”