Can robots express, or appear to express, emotion? Can they trigger an empathetic response from people? Can they be put to good use in therapeutic situations where they may be perceived as less threatening or intimidating than one of their human counterparts? Or are they destined to be just used as specialized household appliances like a refrigerator or washing machine?
And, assuming that you were able to create a robot capable of interacting and performing a useful role, wouldn't it be extremely complex and difficult to program or operate?
The jury is still out on the issue, and is likely to remain out for the foreseeable future. Yet, the results produced by several research projects in Japan and the US are extremely encouraging.
An excellent example is the 'Keepon' (key-pong) robot developed by Hideki Kozima at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) in Japan. The simple robot design is not only able to simulate emotions and emotional response, it has also proven effective in work with children with difficulty in inter-personal communication.
According to the project website-
"The children with difficulty in inter-personal communication (especially, those with PDD and autism), were able to approach to Keepon with curiosity and security. This is probably because Keepon seemed to be neither a complex human nor a simple toy."
Keepon's internal mechanism is fairly simple and straight forward featuring four degrees of freedom. It can tilt, pan, rock side to side, and bob up and down. Yet, it's more than enough for it to create some pretty convincing body language.
The robots two eyes contain color CCD cameras and its nose is actually a microphone pickup. This allows it to track objects optically and respond to sounds in a way that gives the impression that it actually perceives the object. That's easy to understand when it follows some object like a stuffed animal moved in front of it, but it becomes almost spooky when it appears to look you straight in the eye and follow your movement just as if it was making eye contact.
The robot is also capable of simulating the expression of human like emotions like pleasure and excitement through body movements and changes in rhythmic motion patterns. When we first watched Keepon "dancing" to Spoon's "I turn my camera on" song in the video below we thought it was just 'cute'. But by the time it got to the one minute mark we were drawn in by its movements. By the end of the robots performance we were totally hooked and moving in sync with it and the music.
NICT Keepon Project Applications Webpage - Background on the robots use with children
BeatBots Project Website - Marek P. Michalowski at CMU