Within the next 20 years, possibly sooner, household robots will have Internet-downloadable “personalities” that can be updated and swapped to perform a variety of physical and virtual tasks. Your "synthetic companion" will recognize your moods. You will relish your robot’s work capabilities and enjoy its company (real and virtual). Some of this may sound like pure science fiction, but the early components of the scenario are already under development.
This fall, high-tech consumer robotics firm WowWee will sell "Mr. Personality," a $250 three-wheeled toy robot that can crack jokes and tell stories while displaying animated and synchronized facial expressions on his LCD face. WowWee will offer additional “personalities” that can be integrated into the robot via a USB cord or by inserting an SD card into its head. [Ed. note: That works with my Uncle Fred, too.]
Mr. Personality's face doesn’t look human, but that’s possible to accomplish today, not just in science fiction. The U.K.’s University of Hertfordshire is developing KASPAR, a child-sized humanoid robot with facial expressions. KASPAR is one part of LIREC (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions), a $12.89 million European Union project established to advance the relationship between robots and humans.
One of LIREC’s projects will develop the capability of "transferring individual robot personalities across multiple platforms, from the household robot to the virtual robot residing on a desktop or online to the virtual robot on a portable device (PDA or cellular phone)," says Peter McOwan, professor of computer science at Queen Mary, University of London, who is directing LIREC.
Transferring some components of the physical robot’s personality, such as facial expressions and voice comments, could enable users to recognize their robot as a software representation on a computer, PDA, or phone. Household robots could perform such tasks as cleaning or bringing food, as well as downloading and displaying Internet data to plan trips, help children with homework, or balance checkbooks.
The development of emotional bonds -- or “user friendship,” as McOwan prefers -- between robots (physical and virtual) and humans is another aspect of LIREC. To encourage this friendship, software on the robots will store specific interactions with each person, who might believe the robot “remembers” him or her when they bring up past interactions.
One possible scenario might play out like this: The phone robot software winks, waves, and plays a snippet of your favorite tune -- just as the household robot does -- and says (in text, audio, or video), “Remember at home when you said 'we’re out of tea?' It’s 5:30 and you’ll be leaving work in half an hour. Do you want to stop by the store to buy more tea, or should I order it from the Internet?”
McOwan believes a useful “synthetic companion” -- for which people feel genuine affection -- could be produced within five years. He speculates that within the same time period, robots might be able to modify their shapes with inflatable “bladders” [ed. note: Uncle Fred again] to perform different tasks based on new Internet programming.
I believe robot programming in the future will also allow users to have sexual relationships with their synthetic companions (not a LIREC project!). We already have "cellular companions." Last year, chess master and artificial intelligence expert David Levy published Love and Sex with Robots. He writes that by about 2050, robots will become so advanced through emotional and conversational software combined with physical gestures, that it will be normal to consider them friends, co-workers, and even spouses. Levy predicts robots will be ordered with specific personalities which, I assume, could be updated via the Internet.
Although artificial intelligence has proven to be a very tough nut to crack, the future is clear: Physical and virtual robots will continue to evolve. Their new personalities and capabilities will be downloaded via the wired and wireless Internet.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing