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Booth bots: why we build robots that look human

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By now, anyone wandering through the robotics section of CES has seen it: a plastic and metal humanoid performing on a hastily assembled stage, immobilized from the waist down. The gears and muscle tubes are exposed, leaving an impression somewhere between a Björk video and the Terminator. Most bystanders are startled at first before settling into a kind of baffled attention. They'll stand there for five minutes at a time, at a conference where most attendees are constantly in motion. "I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin'," the robot says in an exaggerated Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars. The overdriven speaker distorts his voice into a vaguely Dalek register, struggling to be heard over the noise of the conference hall. "You see, my mule don’t like people laughing."

The overdriven speaker distorts his voice into a vaguely Dalek register

He's called Robothespian, a humanoid robot from the UK firm Engineered Arts Limited that's currently set up at the IEEE booth as a demonstration of modern electronics at its best. It's an odd choice, since the actual capabilities aren't much beyond standard animatronics, but he's good at drawing crowds. "Originally he was built as an actor," says EAL robotics engineer Morgan Roe, "but now he's more of an all-around performer." His most practical application is teaching kids about science at the Kennedy Space Center, where the uncanniness of a humanoid bot draws more attention than a human being could command. The trick even works in the sensory overload of CES. He cuts a bizarre figure, but he holds your eye.

Resembling a television that has swallowed a person's head

And at CES, he's got plenty of company. CES’s robotics booths have a surprising number of anthropomorphic bots, and most of them seem indifferent to the latest displays and processors. They're working another angle, something much closer to kitsch. Human robots are fascinating, but their fascinating quality doesn't have much to with the technology at work behind the scenes. It's aesthetics, not technology.

The latest model from Future Robots is another prime example. Each one costs $30,000, and you can already find them in the right Korean movie theaters. The bot, called Furo S, is basically a humanoid billboard, a 2-foot touchscreen tablet connected to a set of wheels with a second face-projection screen at eye level, resembling a television that has swallowed a person's head. The bots make money through a stream of ads, left running on the bottom half of the lower tablet. If that tablet were mounted on the wall, it would simply be ignored — but a walking robot is designed to catch eyes.

As devices get smarter, we expect them to look the part

Once you're primed to see that humanoid bent, you begin to see it everywhere, whether it's LG's Bean Bird or telepresence bots that subtly mimic the shape of a human body. It's the same phenomenon on a less outlandish scale. A tiny hint of humanity can go a long way towards making a device appealing, even if you don't go as far as planting a face-television on top of your smartwatch. As devices get more intelligent, we expect them to look the part, all the way down to the classic sick-folder face.

"When does anthropomorphism go too far?"

Despite that, anthropomorphism is a surprisingly controversial topic in human-computer interaction circles, akin to skeuomorphism in software design. For one camp, making a machine look human is lazy, relying on what's familiar instead of what's actually useful. But to another camp, as championed by Brian Duffy's "Anthropomorphism and the Social Robot," the logic of the human is inescapable. We can't help but project human characteristics onto the world around us, and robots are no different. Instead of running from the humanoid, Duffy says, we should use the impulse strategically, deploying it as robots enter the social domain. "What is the ideal set of human features that could supplement and augment a robot’s social functionality?" Duffy asks. "When does anthropomorphism go too far?"

So if the user needs to talk to a robot, perhaps that robot should have a face. If users talk to the robot enough, they might give it a face whether you put one there or not. RoboThespian and Future Robots are at the far end of the curve, but they're tapping into a powerful urge, and it shows in the crowds. In the modest goal of tempting people into your booth, these robots are doing better than a lot of the more impressive tech on the floor. As it turns out, that game is more about the human reaction than anything that happens on a circuit board.

Video directed by Zach Goldstein.