Talking gadgets were everywhere at CES this year, many of them powered by the same Alexa software inside Amazon’s Echo speaker. Advances in artificial intelligence have produced big gains over the last few years in computer’s ability to hear and understand what we’re saying to them. And Hanson Robotics, famous for its artfully sculpted and emotionally evocative creations, is eager to get in on the fun.
The company, which until now focused on very expensive, one-off projects, is set to release its first mainstream consumer product: Professor Einstein. The 14.5-inch-tall robot is equipped with several microphones and a speaker. You can ask it questions about the weather, long division, famous people, and types of food. In our testing it was able to understand most queries, but took a lot longer than Alexa or Google Home to respond.
Einstein has a camera tucked into its tie and will turn its head to face movement. With a couple people in the room chatting it got distracted easily, glancing back and forth, attempting to answer lots of questions nobody had asked that it picked up from fragments of our conversation.
Hanson has designed an interactive app to go along with the Einstein doll. You can ask it questions about relativity and, if your app is open to the right screen, the doll will automatically launch a video explainer, chatting along to emphasize the lesson. Studies have indicated that children learn more when engaging with an avatar instead of just text on a computer screen, and even more when engaging with a robot instead of a digital avatar. Of course, hands-on work with a real human teacher is still best.
Einstein is available for preorder on Kickstarter today. Early-bird backers get it for $249, and the company expects it to retail at $299 some time this spring.