Do You Know the Way to Stepford, Conn.?
“Scientists Years from Stepford-Quality Robots,” The Hartford Courant read, over a John Jurgensen story that got picked up by The Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Wayne, Ind. Journal Gazette a week after the remake, The Stepford Wives, opened in movie theaters nationwide.
Jurgensen asks, “So where’s the sociable ’bot designed to keep a lonely soul company on a Saturday night?”
The distance between asking this question now, when technology to simulate such a creation is already available, and asking it in the time of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is enormous. The human imagination has worried away at the prospect of man-made men for hundreds of years now, long enough for every possible permutation to have presented itself in literature, on the screen, and across the wide horizon of human consciousness. But could any of it have prepared us for this next big thing?
Robotics scientists at the ultra-funded MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (www.ai.mit.edu) are neck-deep in technologies that could ultimately be applied to a “realer” RealDoll™. “Coco,” “COG,” and “Kismet” prototypes are past developments from the Humanoid Robotics Group (www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group). Their latest addition is the “social robot” project Leonardo (http://robotic.media.mit.edu/projects/Leonardo/Leo-intro.html). Developed in conjunction with movie special-effects impresario Stan Winston, Leonardo was created by Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Robotic Life Group, and her students. Leonardo has more than 70 motors in its ears, eyes, face, neck, and arms, and thus, the capability for more emotional expressiveness than any robot or puppet that has ever been built.
That gender is a touchstone for people in their interactions with machines is a point brought up by Simson Garfinkel in the author’s “Robot Sex” piece for Technology Review: “Is your Roomba a boy or a girl?” he asks. The Roomba is basically an automated vacuum cleaner that roams a house much like a pool-cleaner roams the pool (and Garfinkel’s wife ascertains that it’s a girl).
Honda Motors’ ASIMO (http://world.honda.com/ASIMO/index.html), Garfinkel concludes, is masculine: it “walks around like a short astronaut in a white space suit. Four-foot tall ASIMO is the latest in a long line of the company’s bipedal robots.... [the company] repeatedly refers to the robot with the pronoun ‘he.’”
Gender does make the person-to-machine connection richer for the person, however. We constantly anthropomorphize cars, computers and gadgets, because it helps us interact with them. Robert Doornick, International Robotics’ president and CEO, observes, “The issue of gender is more or less a choice that has to be made by the people that these robots will cohabit with.”
When Jurgensen interviewed Chris Willis, the Texas-based president of Android World (www.androidworld.com), Willis finally said, “I’m surprised you haven’t asked me yet about the sex option.
“Eventually it will be available, but I don’t want to advertise it.” Willis’ “domestic” creation, Valerie, is a silicon-covered piece of machinery that will be available for purchase Christmas 2004, at a price of $59K. That includes a year of free repairs.
Adult Technology Leaders See the Possibilities
On the adult side, the innovation along the “sexy robot” front that immediately leaps to mind is, of course, Matt McMullen’s RealDoll (www.realdoll.com), around which he built Abyss Creations, LLC.
It seems it would be a “natural” “fit,” the merger of McMullen’s exceptional silicone love doll with some kind of... machinery. Shelly Couture, Public Media Relations for the firm, thinks so too.
“There are certain aspects that we do have under wraps,” she cautions. “Right now, the technology is not as advanced.... Yes, we can do certain animatronics, and yes, we have things in R&D, like actuators for the hips, eyes opening and closing.
“We do have a product available right now, on the market, on our Website, that gives [RealDoll] the ability to speak; but the lips don’t move yet. So the facial features, the subtlety of movement in the facial features, that kind of thing – we are definitely a ways off yet – but we’re working on it.”
Eric J. White, CEO/CS of Virtual Reality Innovations, Inc. (www.vrinnovations.com), can see the possibilities in mating his machines with a RealDoll body. “If you were to integrate the technology of the Virtual Sex Machine with servo motors in the RealDoll, you could have a moving/talking [robot] today. The only limits would be how much you wanted to spend to integrate the technologies and make them more realistic,” he says.
White believes the first uses of any android will be sexual. “Sexual satisfaction is one of those areas that has so much drive behind it that people are willing to take greater risks, provide more cash outlay, in the hopes it will bring them a greater sexual experience.”
VRI is, itself, in the process of developing plans using “a combination of Haptic tactile devices and visual immersion devices.” Haptics is the branch of science that deals with touch, and Haptic technology is about simulating the sense of touch via computer.
“Again, this type of immersive environment is technologically possible now,” White says.
Haptics will probably provide the evolutionary link between something like today’s RealDoll-with-more-bells-and-whistles and a full-on walking, talking Sexy Robot. A report at e4engineering.com stated in July that researchers from the Virtual Reality Lab at the University at Buffalo (UB) “have developed a new tool for transmitting physical touch to the virtual world.”
Using a “ModelGlove,” the “virtual clay sculpting system’ enables users to replicate in real time on a personal computer the physical act of sculpting a block of clay or other malleable material,” the article says. The technology was formed by Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of the UB Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, along with Ameya Kamerkar, a graduate student in the UB Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
White notes that making the leap into, for instance, feeling people across the Internet is a “matter of combining [already developed] elements to complete the experience. While I can’t go into details, we have explored this possibility, and have prototyped a possible immersive and tactile experience system.
“To take it to the next level – to make it a consumer salable product – requires integrating the system in such a way that it is easy to use, compatible with the average in-home computer system, inexpensive enough for the average computer user, and realistic enough for the consumer to want the product. Pulling those elements together is exactly what Virtual Reality Innovations is about.”
Steve Rhodes, president of Sinulate Entertainment, developed cybersex toy The Sinulator (www.sinulator.com) in 2002; the product’s been on the market for a little over a year. When asked about the likelihood of a sex robot, Rhodes’ first response is, “When?
“Ultimately, of course it will [happen].... The people who are the most frustrated sexually are probably the people who are the most qualified to build some of this stuff. As long as there are geeky engineers who can’t get dates, there will be the desire to build an animatronics sex partner.”
Rhodes also believes that the technology will develop along two paths: “a person-to-machine kind of interaction; also a person-to-person interaction.
“I want to say that every technology we’ve ever had ultimately reaches its zenith when it’s enabled people to interact.... I think the person-to-person technologies are going to allow physical relationships to transcend [physical] boundaries.”
Chris Morse, a former researcher in humanoid robotics at MIT and robotics entrepreneur, has a from-the-inside take on where we are now with robot technology, and also believes “virtual reality” is the next stop.
“I’ve tried to think about where the business is [in this field]. It seems like enhancing the virtual experience [is the first step]. It’s not inconceivable; the live experience is about real bandwidth.... But now we have people controlling robots from space; it’s expensive, but it’s doable.
“There’s no end to the amount of money you can sink into the actual mechanics. I think Haptics is the entirety of the science of what we’re talking about here. I don’t see much of an obstacle in the current technology with the Internet part, the communications part; the things I haven’t seen, and the things that are the hardest, are the actual mechanical things.”
Cutting Edge Technologies to Invest in?
In addition to the opportunities the above companies might provide for the robot-minded, what else might a future-thinking adult technologies entrepreneur invest in, or develop, or track?
The Berkeley (as in UC) Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory has developed something they’re calling “BLEEX: the Berkeley Lower Extremities Exoskeleton” – strap-on mechanical leg braces that allow a “human pilot” to move faster, farther, with a heavier load. Hong Kong’s Wow Wee Toys has introduced the Robosapien (www.robosapienonline.com): 2-foot-tall robots who can “... push, pull, pick up, belch, move, walk, talk, prance, kick, lift, dance and basically entertain,” according to creator Mark Tilden, a robot physicist who also developed robot technology for NASA and DARPA.
Cyberkinetics Inc.,a Massachusetts biotech company, has government approval to implant chips containing 100 tiny electrodes into the brains of five quadriplegics this year to see if their thoughts can operate computers. At least two other research teams are planning similar brain-machine experiments in people.
Technology Research Newsreported in June 2004 that researchers from Switzerland and South Africa have developed a visual interface that lets someone using a machine observe the machine’s “internal state” and thereby interpret the machine’s “behavior” (apparently, “practical applications” are about five years away).
The work of material scientist Takao Someya was profiled in “Buy, Robot” on redherring.com in August: “From his lab at the University of Tokyo, he has developed a robotic skin that could someday become part of a machine with feelings.
“Made of electricity-conducting rubber and organic transistors, and pliant enough to wrap around a 2-mm-wide object, the artificial skin can only detect pressure – today. In the future, Mr. Someya and his colleagues hope to add features, like the ability to sense temperature and humidity.”
TechWeb.com’s October 2003 article on the coming impact of biotechnology, “Experts Say ‘Sea Change’ Ahead for Biotech,” overviewed the PoP!Tech conference in Camden, ME. There, Juan Enriquez, director of Harvard University Business School’s Life Science Project, predicted that in a few as six years all information on a single human could be stored on a single USB memory stick as a result of advances in continuing semiconductor miniaturization. “Marrying silicon and DNA would present opportunities to manipulate humans for better or worse.”
Real commercial and industrial robots now available for human purchase and/or use include for-entertainment models like Sony’s AIBO, the world’s first robot dog, which can recognize a few words and chase a ball, and Sony’s QRIO humanoid robots, as well as the FurReal “pets” from Hasbro; in medicine and rehabilitation, robot prostheses and orthotics, the Paro “Mental Commit” therapeutic robot, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Lokomat, plus their developing virtual reality machine purposed to coax the brain and body of stroke patients back into cooperating; in space, the Mars rovers and NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Saturn probe; industrial and assembly robots and robot kits; and the government might not talk about building “battlebots,” but is planning to “automate” the battlefield.
What’s the Hold-up, Sexy Robot?
“Right now,” Morse summarizes, “there are robots that are either more realistic-looking (MIT’s Leonardo, movie robots); more expressive (Leonardo, Kismet, COG); or [mechanically strong enough to] physically interact with a person (COG).” Some robots embody two of these qualities, but none embody all three, and in Morse’s view, these are the elements that would have to be combined to create a sex-essful robot.
“Making a full robot automaton, capable of maybe lying in bed or turning sideways or jiggling – that’s a lot of weight to move around. You see a movie like I, Robot where these spindly robots are throwing people around; that just doesn’t happen. We’re not going to get there any time soon.
“But if you want to talk about, maybe, making facial expressions, or focusing on certain critical areas to enhance an interactive experience, I think the pieces are there. It’s not going to be cheap. If you want to do something that’s a reasonably rich experience, you are going to need to spend some time... the people with the technical expertise are pretty insulated from the people who have the [adult robotic companion] marketing/user experience expertise. It seems like there’s a lot of money in this field, but as far as these two groups of people talking, in a meaningful way... I haven’t seen it yet.”
Rhodes has been thinking along those same lines.
“We’re putting together something called FAST: the Forum for the Advancement of Sex Technology. The premise being that [there has been no consortium to] deal with all the other little start-up companies like myself that are all developing wild, wacky sex technology.
“I’m always talking with all these little sex toy manufacturers.... what we’re really going to set up is a cybersex relay network. [We would] be dial tone for the cybersex industry. If you want to go create an input device, like the Cyberstroker, or like a graphical interface that will control some sex toys, you go do that. All you need to do is [adhere to a] standard. It’ll be like USB for cybersex. And then you won’t have to go make everything else. You plug into the network, and your sex toy will be able to be controlled over the Internet. [We want to] model it something like the USB developer’s forum or the Java consortium.
“What we’ve pitched to a couple of other companies is, ‘Hey guys? Don’t get us wrong, we’re competitive, we’re fun, we’re innovative. And we want to compete, because that’s what makes companies good, but let’s not compete on everything. Let’s try to take a couple of things that don’t give us a competitive advantage and [standardize]. And let’s try to make re-usable modules that everybody can use’… it would be like if this were the beginning of the car industry, and we said, ‘Look, we’re gonna go make gas stations. Anybody who wants can go build an internal combustion engine that will run off this fuel. Go build cars.’ People would be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I don’t have to solve my own where-are-people-going-to-get-fuel problem.’”