Thursday, September 17, 2009

Panda robots?

This story touched on so many things for me, including species conservation, robot celebrities, robot teachers, and cultural assumptions of human-robot futures. Via AFP:
TAIPEI — The world's first panda robot is taking shape at a cutting-edge lab in Taiwan where an ambitious group of scientists hope to add new dimensions to the island's reputation as a high-tech power.
The Centre for Intelligent Robots Research aims to develop pandas that are friendlier and more artistically endowed than their endangered real-life counterparts.
"The panda robot will be very cute and more attracted to humans. Maybe the panda robot can be made to sing a panda song," said Jerry Lin, the centre's 52-year-old director.
Well, this could be an interesting way of tackling the charismatic megafauna issue to conservation ... by making them even more charismatic... Of course, this is probably not like your parents' robo-panda, either.
The robo-panda is just one of many projects on the drawing board at the centre, which is attached to the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, the island's version of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Taipei-based centre also aims to build robots that look like popular singers, so exact replicas of world stars can perform in the comfort of their fans' homes.
"It could be a Madonna robot. It will be a completely different experience from just listening to audio," said Lin.
Of course, if you were to have a robot of Madonna, the world tours would be very easy to make, and could literally make Madonna (or another robo-artist) embodied and immortal. Furthermore, the artists who are made into robots can also continue to write and sing songs, being able to use their body doubles for their touring and music promotions. The term "world-tour" takes on a different meaning when you've got an army of robot doubles taking to the stage throughout the world...
Lin and his team are also working on educational robots that can act as private tutors for children, teaching them vocabulary or telling them stories in foreign languages.
There is an obvious target market: China, with its tens of millions of middle-class parents doting on the one child they are allowed under strict population policies.
"Asian parents are prepared to spend a lot of money to teach their children languages," said Lin.
Robots running amok are a fixture of popular literature but parents do not have to worry about leaving their children home alone with their artificial teachers, he said.
See? No worries in China about some Frankenstein's monster giving private tutoring lessons to your kids. Because there are different cultural norms than in the West. If this were proposed here, I think that - other than techno-utopians - there will be a hew and cry from people on all sides, including parents who might have some image of Terminator mixed together with Kindergarten Cop.

Of course, when this sort of technology gets into the hands of a wider audience, I predict one of two things happening: the film industry using them and the adult sex toy industry using them. However, in the former case, it might well be easier to make use of computer generated images than to bring in a robot (the technology for that is, after all, far more advanced than robots).

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