This Week In Bots: On A Gender-Bender With Gynoids, Androids & Androgynoids

female robots

Bot Vid: Strolling Like A Person

Walking like a human isn't just a weird narcissistic goal for robot developers--the human gait has evolved to be a very efficient way to move bipedally, and if robots are to work with and among humans, then a human-like walk is both useful and sensible. So a team at the University of Arizona has been working on robot legs that mimic as closely as possible the real thing, even replicating the tiniest up-and-down movement of human hips and feet via a network of sensors and actuators. It's said to be the most realistic human walking robot yet, although it's technically very much a prototype.

Bot Vid: Shopping Like A Bot

Carnegie Mellon University is trying a robot out in an unusual role: A store stock checker. AndyVision, as he's called, roams a campus store and scans the nearby shelves to generate a real-time map of what stock is on sale and where it is, using a combination of barcode sensing, text recognition, and machine vision to identify objects and their positions. While its usefulness is immediate in helping track stock, the ultimate goal is to see if accurate robot store stock checking can lead to legitimate money-savings, and so AndyVision will make it off campus into "real" stores sometime later this year. 

Bot Vid: Ninja-ish Fighting Bot

At Google's I/O event alongside all the smartphone Android stuff there was a real android exhibit that's being called a world's first: A games booth where participants could fight a life-size robot. It's actually a tablet-based device called the RIC Ninja Master from RT Corporation, and "full size" means just under four feet tall. The tablet handles all the gaming and robot motion calculations, and the it's a little bit of a scam--the robot's fighting tricks come from a human player's movements which are scanned using an Xtion Pro Live sensor. The human opponent's scores are calculated from an on-body sensor. It's more a demonstration of intent rather than a tour de force of technology, but it does hint at an android gaming future you may not have imagined.

Bot News

Mind control bot. In a version of real-life Avatar, a robot in France has now been controlled by the thoughts of someone inside an fMRI scanner in Israel. It's a demonstration of fMRI's ability to read the intent of a human to move their muscles, but it's a powerful move toward both future robot tech and future telepresent tech.

Efficient warbots. In its pursuit for robots for all sorts of military purposes, DARPA has just set out a new requirement: It's launched a new program to develop robots that are 2000% more efficient than current robots are, with a goal of creating robots that won't run out of juice at unfortunate moments, such as mid-battle. 

TEDbot. In what seems to be the first time it's happened, a robot has taken autonomous control of a TED presentation at TEDxFrontRange. Vigilus was developed for remote security purposes, but he seems to have carried out his speaking assignment with aplomb--even ending with an audience-teasing kicker question. 

Eyebot. A scientist at Georgia Tech has invented a type of piezoelectric robot actuator that can move with such finesse that it can replicate the kind of fine movements human muscles make when they accurately and delicately maneuver our eyeballs. The intention is that the muscles will first generate more intuitively accessible robot vision feeds, and, when used elsewhere in robot design, replace static non-human motors and gears for more fluid moves. 

Bot Futures: Gynoids, Androids Or Androgynoids--Robot Gender Issues

We're busy building robots that move like us, twitch like us, and even think like us. But the walking legs, human-like eyes, and even the ninja robot here all share one trait that you may expect to be pretty common among robots: They're gender neutral, evidently artificial.

Compare that to the robot innovation pictured here. She's called EveR-4, and she's a product of Korea's KITECH research facility. EveR-4 was recently demonstrated at the robotics pavilion at Expo 2012, and she's packed full of impressive tech: Plastic Pals reports that her inventor says her artificial tongue and 30 head-mounted actuators are a world record, enabling very human-like facial movements. That's an impressive count, but she can also talk and is designed to be a receptionist of sorts--able to make speeches and interact with people.

And she's quite definitely a she, which technically makes her a gynoid. As such she joins a short list of impressive gynoid machines that includes some members of the Geminoid robot family and the amazingly life-like dancing HRP4-C. These droids are distinct from other more-male Geminoid actors and even Honda's lovable Asimo machine, who seems to have male-skewed characteristics. These latter machines are androids, and though that term has been used to distinguish robots that are generically human in shape (your C-3PO-type robot, versus your trashcan-like R2-D2 for example) it seems that we may begin to use it to describe male-like robots.

We're not talking about gender stereotyping here (the dancing HRP4-C and the receptionist EveR-4 for example), nor are we talking about specifically gender-designed robots for machine-human interactions of a more intimate nature. Those are topics for a future, probably pretty fascinating edition of TWiB.

What we're pointing out is that more and more robots are soon going to be interacting with us in our daily lives, and while at first they're going to be more like advanced Roombas, soon enough we'll be interacting with human-form machines. So should we design them to be male-like, female-like, or completely artificially gender-free?

It may sound like a silly question, but it's not. Much research is going into how we interact with robots in an emotional way, just as simultaneously scientists are giving droids human-like walking moves, voices, thoughts, senses, and musculatures. How we interact emotionally with robots--particularly those that move like we do, and operate in our familiar environments--affects how much we trust them, which is important in medical scenarios, and even how likely we are to shoot at them in a military situation (no joke). 

The choice of assigning a gender in robot design will, someday, become a legal issue and probably a political one, and it's almost certainly as important as designing robots that are afraid of us, which obey us, or that can intelligently avoid hurting us if we crash into them. If we're clever, human-like robots could even act as beneficial tools in the ongoing war for gender equality in our actual human world.

[Image: Flickr users Caroline Davis2010mikecogh]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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