Albert Einstein may have written his last scientific theory more than half a century ago, but he's still honing his emotional intelligence in a laboratory at UCSD.
The university's California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) has equipped a robot modeled after the famed theoretical physicist with specialized software that allows it to interact with humans in a relatively natural, conversational way.
The so-called "Einstein Robot" was designed by Hanson Robotics of Dallas.
"In the short term, Einstein is being used to develop computer vision so we can see how computers perceive facial expressions and develop hardware to visually react," says Javier Movellan, a research scientist in the Calit2-based UCSD Machine Perception Laboratory (MPL). "This robot is a scientific instrument that we hope will tell us something about human-robot interaction, but also human-to-human interaction.
"When a robot interacts in a way we feel is human, we can't help but react. Developing a robot like this one teaches us how sensitive we are to biological movement and facial expressions, and when we get it right, it's really astonishing."
The Einstein Robot - a head-and-shoulders automaton complete with unruly white hair and bushy mustache - made its public debut at the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Long Beach earlier this month.
David Hanson, the robot's primary designer and owner of Hanson Robotics, amazed a crowd of 1,500 with Einstein's capacity to understand and mimic expressions.
Several graduate students from the UCSD lab accompanied Hanson to the conference, which was established to facilitate creative collaborations among scientists, entrepreneurs and designers.
Evoking realistic facial expressions in a machine made of wires and gears is no small feat, said Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer.
For Einstein to crack a smile, 17 of the robot's 31 motors must whir into action and subtly adjust multiple points of articulation around his mouth and piercing brown eyes. To express confusion, Einstein furrows his brow, but even that movement - which is second nature for most humans - is difficult to re-create in a robot.
To achieve a realistic result, Hanson constructed Einstein's face from a patented, fleshlike material known as Frubber, which he created after extensive research into facial anatomy, physiology, materials science and soft-bodied mechanical engineering. Hanson even went so far as to fashion the Frubber with realistic pores.
The robot's internal facial recognition software was developed by Movellan and a team of graduate students at Calit2. It is based on a series of computational algorithms derived from an analysis of more than a million facial images.
Movellan, working with Jacobs School of Engineering computer science professor Yoav Freund, also succeeded in getting the robot to respond to audio cues such as clapping, which might prove helpful were Einstein to be used in an educational setting.
Movellan says he's hoping to have the robot's operational system fully integrated by June so that it can be deployed as a prototype robot teacher in a local high school.