Hanson Robotics has debuted a humanoid robot that is able to recognise and understand people's facial expressions, hold a conversation and respond appropriately with its own expressions.
Han the robot is rather unnerving – he features the humanoid head, neck and torso of a middle-aged English man, while the rest of his electronic innards are on show in a clear body. There are cameras in his eyes and chest that enable him to detect the face and emotions of the human standing in front of it.
Han is capable of locating a person's eyes and then maintaining eye contact with the person, and he focuses on the person while asking questions. Users speak into the microphone on a smartphone and the app captures the words and feeds it to Han's computer, and the robot can be commanded to smile, wink, frown, wince or even pretend to be drunk with the click of a button.
The robot has been programmed to respond correctly to certain common social niceties used in casual conversation and is also able to pick up on words and use them to ask a question in return if it does not have an answer to the question asked by the human. He can also detect the person's gender and what their emotional state is – whether happy or sad.
Frubber, the robot skin of the future
He is able to show facial expressions and move his cheeks with the help of Frubber, Hanson Robotics' patented flesh-like rubber material that can easily be pulled, stretched and contracted by the 40 motors on the robot's head that lie beneath his skin.
"One of the reasons we're able to make such realistic humanoid robots is because of Frubber, a porous silicone material that was invented by Dr Hanson," Hanson Robotics' product manager Grace Copplestone said.
"The reason Frubber is so valuable is that is can be stretched with a very low amount of force, so this means we can use much smaller motors and pack a lot more of them in to make incredibly realistic facial expressions. Our competitors use solid silicone which requires a lot more force and therefore you get the goldfish effect."
From watching footage of the robot interacting with visitors to the Global Sources Mobile Electronics show in Hong Kong on 19 April, it is clear that the robot has specific jokes, one-liners and quips and its computer is able to compare what is said by a human to its database of responses and then respond in a semi-realistic way.
Real-life applications for Han
Hanson Robotics has developed several humanoid robots as well as the artificial intelligence to run them, including the world's first expressive biped robot Albert-Hubo and the PKD Robot (a lifelike portrait of Philip K Dick).
They are currently working nine universities around the world to research everything from artificial intelligence and machine perception to cognitive science, neuroscience, mechanical engineering and artificial muscle actuator research.
The firm feels that Han has a number of commercial applications where he can interact with people who aren't researchers or scientists.
Similar to Toshiba's ChihiraAico female hostess humanoid robot, Hanson Robotics sees Han being used as concierge staff at a hotel to greet new guests or to interact with visitors to a museum or casino to entertain and educate.
The firm also thinks that Han could be useful as a talking medical training mannequin as it would be able to provide "the most realistic training ever", according to Copplestone.