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A Robot that Can Smile or Frown

May 15, 2008
MIT debuts Nexi, a robot with facial expressions.

Nexi, the latest robot star from MIT's Media Lab, is symbolic of the widespread research interest in the future range of applications for personal robots and human-robot teamwork. Nexi is an experimental humanoid robot with a head that can display a wide range of facial expressions. Video cameras and microphones enable it to see and hear, and eventually Nexi will have mobility made possible by a Segway transporter type device.

The project was originally funded by an office of Naval Research Defense University Research Instrumentation program award. The intent: to develop a novel class of robots that can engage in sophisticated forms of peer-to-peer teamwork with humans in uncertain environments.

MIT and other U.S. researchers have no monopoly on personal robot enthusiasm. In Japan, for instance, robot experts are even more convinced that robots are rapidly becoming social companions to people.

Robotic maids will be common domestic assistants in less than 20 years, say the robot experts at Georgia Tech. "The personal robot market is already growing 400% per year," says Henrik Christensen, director of the newly formed Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center in the Georgia Tech College of Computing. For industrial robots, Jeffrey Burnstein, executive vice president of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), reports 2007's growth at 24%.

"Now, as we get more intelligence into the robot, we can start doing things we could only imagine in the 1960s and 1970s," says Christensen. "On the industrial side, it is enabling the expansion of robots from the automotive sector to a number of other sectors. The added intelligence is also enabling the move from large-scale to small-scale manufacturing. That added intelligence also increases the functionality possible with the home deployment of personal robots," he says.

Expect personal robots to enter our home lives in two ways, Christensen adds. "One is the robotic personal assistant that may cost as much as an automobile. The other is through the addition of specific robot functionality to standard household equipment." He cites iRobot's Roomba home vacuum cleaner as a low-cost example of things to come.

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