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Robot relationships are virtually assured

LONDON, July 30 – David McGoran cradles his baby in his arms. As he looks down into its big, dark eyes, it turns its head towards him and blinks, looking contented as it curls a bony white finger around his hand.

But the "baby" is not human. And it looks more like the evil Gollum from "The Lord Of The Rings" movies except in a hemp romper suit with cloth ears than a gurgly infant.

Meet Heart Robot, a flexible, plastic puppet with robotic features that has been programmed to react to sound, touch and nearby movements.

Heart Robot, so called because its red "heart" is visible on the left side of its body and beats at different rates, is certainly getting more attention than its menacing-looking counterpart, iC Hexapod, nearby.

The six-legged creature, which looks like a giant mechanical tarantula, flexes its spiny metal limbs as a miniature camera where the spider’s head would be scrutinises the face of a young girl staring at it curiously.

On a television screen next to iC Hexapod, the girl gets a live, robot’s eye view of what the machine is seeing, shifting its head in response to her movement and recoiling if she gets too close.

Both Heart Robot and iC Hexapod are "emotibots" robots programmed to react to human emotions on display this week at the Antenna Gallery at London’s Science Museum.

For McGoran and iC Hexapod’s inventor, Matt Denton, creating robots that recognise and respond to basic human emotions is a logical step as people’s daily lives become increasingly dependent on technology.

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"People know about artificial intelligence but the perception is that robots are cold and calculating industrial automatons," McGoran, who is studying robotics at the University of the West of England, told AFP.

"But over the last decade, there has been a new field where robots have become the opposite of that."

The reaction to Heart Robot is similar to that of cinema audiences to the star of the new Pixar animated film WALL-E, about a cute, ET-like robot looking for love as it clears up the mess of human civilisation on a deserted Earth.

"We’re emotional machines. We can’t help it. We forget how easy it is for us to be drawn in," said McGoran, from Vancouver, Canada, whose background is in puppetry and dance.

One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, he predicts, humankind’s relationship to machines could be transformed if they are programmed to respond to prompts like vocal tension or facial expressions.
Denton agrees.

He runs micromagic systems, an animatronics firm based in Winchester, southern England, and has worked on blockbuster films like "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and music videos for British trip-hop band Massive Attack.

He developed iC Hexapod with face recognition software which is already available and used in some closed-circuit television systems as well as for car number plate recognition.

Greater interaction with robots is inevitable, he said, as technology changes human relationships through email, "virtual" worlds like Second Life or even social networking sites that often reduce actual face-to-face contact.

"I don’t think it will be a substitute for human relationships but I certainly think people will form bonds with their robots" in a similar way to the care and attention some people lavish on their cars, he told AFP.

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Humans cannot help but like WALL-E or even the box-like robots which are sent to Earth in director Douglas Turnbull’s cult 1972 science fiction film "Silent Running", he said.

The same could be said for KITT, the "talking car" in the popular US television series "Knight Rider", or Japanese firm Honda’s walking, astronaut-like robot, ASIMO.

California-based Ugobe’s PLEO, a 1,000-dollar (637-euro, 503-pound) baby dinosaur toy programmed to display a range of emotions, including playfulness, fear and surprise, has been the talk of the robotics world.

"If they (robots) portray some kind of emotional response, people will become attached to them," he added.

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