Meet RoboThespian, A Robotic Entertainment Extraordinaire - He Can Even Perform Singin' In The Rain

Engineered Arts has moved on from vaguely creepy, voyeuristic robotic assistants to full-fledged entertainment droids. RoboThespian is, according to the company's co-founder Will Jackson, the result of his organization's efforts to make an automated presenter. Coincidentally, it's also one of the most human-like commercial robots ever created - save for the fact that it doesn't get bored.

That, says Jackson, is incredibly important. 

"Our mission was to make something that could stand in a spot all day, every day, and tell people things but do it in an entertaining way, using gestures. [For a human], it's really tedious to tell someone to do that; it was ripe for automation." 

Jackson first became aware of the need for some sort of automated presence back in the 1990s, when he was putting his special effects background to use working on exhibitions for the Science Museum. He noticed that museum staff often had a job that was anything but enviable - repeatedly explaining concepts, ideas, and exhibits to people, while at the same time showing no signs of nervousness, irritation, or boredom. A tall order for a living, breathing human being; such a task would be no trouble at all for a robot.

And so, when Jackson founded Engineered Arts in 2004, RoboThespian was one of the first projects his organization set out to create. Now in its third generation, the machine's significantly more advanced than any of its earlier iterations. It's also fully customizable, and capable of communicating - and telling jokes - in up to thirty different languages. 

Although it's not capable of full locomotion, its arms, head, and eyes move when it speaks, and it can maintain eye contact while holding a conversation. It can guess the mood and age of its audience, and if the atmosphere seems right, it might even break into song. The whole device is controlled via a tablet interface, making it easy for just about anyone with the need to modify, customize, and control the robot. 

According to Jackson, his company ships around twenty or so of the machines - which retail at about $90,000 USD - per year. He says that the most critical aspect of RoboThespian is that it's got a humanoid shape - it's not a massive, intimidating hunk of metal, nor is it an indifferent, uncaring screen. It's almost human.

"Making machines that have the properties of people is key for making a performing robot. It has huge industrial applications as well, because if you can make a machine which is safe around people and it's able to behave like a person, you can then do collaborative tasks, you can start solving all kinds of other problems."

Speaking of solving problems, Engineered Arts is already hard at work on the next stage of development for RoboThespian - Byrun, a five foot tall robot that can walk, hop, jump, and - presumably - dance. Five of Jackson's fourteen employees are focused on creating a "strong, lightweight, bouncy and compliant robot."

Unlike its predecessor, Byrun will be capable of full locomotion, with proportions and joints designed to be as similar to the human shape as possible. Its fingers will be sensitive to pressure and temperature, and it'll be able to connect with human beings in a wide array of different fashions, serving as everything from a co-worker to a caregiver. 

Of course, an army of fully-functional, autonomous, humanoid robots have one other clear application - and it's one that Jackson will never allow.

"Ethically, I am opposed to the mechanism of death and I don't want to get involved with anything that makes it easier to kill people from a distance. As a company, we are fundamentally opposed to any use of robots for military purposes. We get asked now and again to sell, but we just don't do it." 

Jackson says that Byrun, once its completed, will sell for between $745,000 and $828,000 USD. He suspects that they'll primarily be used for research and development. Unlike many in the robotics industry, he's not a fan of the notion that robots will eventually replace human beings - at least, not in the next few decades.  

"I don't believe in this classic idea of robots as servants to humanity, certainly not humanoid-shaped ones. We do have robots that do a lot of utility tasks - in your home you probably have a dishwasher, you have a washing machine. Those are the robots that you are going to see around your home. You are not going to see something with two legs, not unless it is a toy. Those things are fun but they are practically useless for doing utility tasks," he explained.

"If you look at industrial robots where a lot of the humanoid technology has come from, they are designed for very, very precise position control: 'get object from A to B, get it there within a tenth of a millimetre'. That is not how we operate, we operate in a very tactile sort of way. When you are leaning on the table, you don't know that the table is 802.3mm high, you just know that you put your elbows there."

This month, Engineered Arts finished its third prototype of Byrun's legs. It's currently unknown when the full machine will be completed.