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Don't call it a Cylon: Building a humanoid robot

The ECCEROBOT has a distinctly (almost disturbingly) organic look, which is deliberate. The builder drew inspiration from Gray's Anatomy, yoga manuals, bodybuilding books and dissection DVDs. The resulting structural verisimilitude produces surprisingly fluid motion, a kind of movement “so notably missing from classical robots.”

The Robot Studio

For Rob Knight, it's what's inside that counts. Specifically, what's inside of robots.

Mr. Knight runs France-based The Robot Studio, and has made it his life's work to design and build robots that are that are as human-like as possible, right down to the bones, muscles, and tendons.

His work is based on a design principle called "anthropomimetics" – from the ancient Greek "anthropos" (human being) and "mimesis" (to imitate).

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Perhaps the best example of an anthropomimetic robot is Mr. Knight's own ECCEROBOT, demonstrated at last week's InnoRobo summit in Lyon, France. Unlike many other robots on the trade show floor, ECCEROBOT's guts are clearly visible.

"The entire thing is hand-made," explains Mr. Knight. ECCEROBOT's "bones" are made from a special type of easily-moldable plastic. The elasticity in its "muscles" is provided by bungee cords, and its "tendons" are high-grade kite string, driven by screwdriver motors.

Mr. Knight is quick to point out that certain technological constraints, such as the size of motors, have kept ECCEROBOT's insides from being completely anatomically correct: "Where the internal organs would ordinarily be, you have the motors for the shoulder, and where the arm bone would be, you have the motors for the upper arm."

Still, ECCEROBOT has a distinctly (almost disturbingly) organic look, which is deliberate. While building the robot, Knight drew inspiration from Gray's Anatomy (yes, the book), yoga manuals, bodybuilding books and dissection DVDs. The resulting structural verisimilitude produces surprisingly fluid motion (check Ecce's YouTube channel for videos), a kind of movement that Mr. Knight says is "so notably missing from classical robots."

While they're a very small percentage of the world's overall robot population, ECCEROBOT and other anthropomimetic robots (like Kojiro from the University of Tokyo) represent a radical departure from classical robot design. "Everyone's designing their robots with servo motors and rigid DC gearboxes and drives," says fellow roboticist Will Jackson, explaining one of the key challenges in modern robotics. "That makes them very dangerous."

Mr. Knight agrees. "A factory robot is typically metal, heavy, with a big power supply bolted to the floor. If anything goes wrong, it will destroy itself or whatever it touches."

Thus, Mr. Knight argues, anthropomimetic design can be seen as a reaction to the failure of classical robotics, and an attempt to make human-robot interaction more natural, and therefore safer. If a robot moves like a human being, it's easier for nearby humans to anticipate its movements. If a robot is "compliant" (robotics-speak for "flexible"), it's less likely to crush you.

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But beyond the practical side-effects of creating safer robots with more human-like motion, the larger goal of the ECCEROBOT project is considerably loftier: to investigate artificial consciousness. Mr. Knight explains, "If intelligence and consciousness arises from the combination of data processing, abstraction and a body, then the body ought to be as human-like as possible."

ECCEROBOT's design underscores what some believe to be a crucial part of any artificial intelligence system: embodiment. "You need a situated, embodied intelligence which can extract meaning from its own interactions with the physical world."

On the trade show floor, ECCEROBOT doesn't show many signs of artificial consciousness. However, its interactions with the physical world are more exposed. With muscles and tendons on display, its fingers quiver, and the robot turns its head to follow passersby.

This elicits mixed reactions from the public. Some are intrigued, but cautiously maintain their distance. Others walk right up and shake ECCEROBOT's hand.

"Kids are not at all afraid of this," claims Mr. Knight. "Kids come up and jiggle it around and shake hands with it and they love it. Some adults though, have a very strong reaction. But kids? Kids are fine.

"People started hugging it a lot, which i find a little odd. But it's actually quite nice. It's quite a solid body. It hugs you back."

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When asked about his own relationship with ECCEROBOT, Mr. Knight says, "I am fond of it in the sense that it's my life's work, and I've put a lot of effort into it, but it's just an object."

Though embodiment and anthropomimetic design may provide insight into artificial intelligence, we're not there yet, explains Mr. Knight, before recalling quote from the film I, Robot.

"It's just lights and clockwork."

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