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Image credit: Chris Velazco, Engadget

Come for this Einstein robot's facial expressions, stay for his smarts

The robotic professor is as eccentric as the greatest physicist who ever lived.
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Chris Velazco, Engadget

"I had the worst dream," said Professor Einstein. "My vast intellect had been downloaded into a prosthetic body. I was then made to present the world of science to perfect strangers."

Within moments of being activated, the 14-inch robotic replica of Albert Einstein made a meta comment about being trapped in a knowledge-dispensing machine. It shook its head from side to side and slowly blinked its eyes as if it were contemplating his situation. As it continued to speak, it held up its right arm, pointing a finger at me while casually making a point about the theory of relativity.

The mechanical professor from Hanson Robotics is designed to be your favorite teacher. It's loaded with tons of knowledge, funny anecdotes and exaggerated expressions. Wearing black pants, a white sweater with shirt collars and a black tie, little Einstein is dressed the part. While the robot's straight, white hair is far too tame in comparison to the unruly "genius hair" that it's modeled after, the wide bushy moustache is an accurate representation.

At a time when digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home are making voice-controlled human-machine interactions more common, a chatty "personal genius" for kids seems like a natural progression for mechanical toys.

Einstein communicates in both online and offline modes. When it's connected to the cloud via WiFi, it uses natural language processing to keep the conversation going. Instead of building its own speech recognition technique, the company taps into open-sourced APIs, allowing the robot to do things like pull up weather updates or tell you about Donald Trump. But it seems to be most active in its offline mode, when it connects to an accompanying app called Stein-o-Matic that's designed to keep kids engaged through audio-visual activities.

The app has a clean, simple interface intended to make it easier for kids to work through complex science concepts. As a child works through brain games, watches research videos or plays a space rocket game that illustrates gravity, the professor steps in frequently for directions or additional context in line with the visuals in front of them. The professor also delivers compliments ("that was pure genius") when a child does well in a quiz. If they don't, Einstein encourages them to try again.

From games about scientific theories to the mannerisms with which the professor guides the kid, everything about Einstein is built to make the world of science fun and approachable. While this is the first commercial robot of its kind from Hong-Kong based Hanson Robotics, it's not their first attempt at a talking humanoid. The company, which has been around 2013, is known for building robots that have life-like expressions. Chatty Sophia made a splash at SXSW last year, while BINA48 was widely acclaimed as one of the most realistic robots. Then there was the lifesize Einstein, which had an uncanny resemblance to the man it emulated. Each machine came one step closer to replicating human facial expressions.

Now with the miniature professor version, which debuts on Kickstarter today, the company wants to bring that expressive expertise to home companions. It paid close attention to physical and expressive details with Einstein. Staying true to the original scientist's friendly disposition, the little robot breaks into an endearing smile. It also raises its eyebrows to follow a surprising fact or wrinkles its forehead into a deep-thinking-frown to follow a question. But one of its highlights is a quirk that is modeled after Albert Einstein's most iconic photograph, where he stuck out his tongue instead of posing for the picture. The little robot lives up to the scientist's eccentricity by sticking out its tongue ever so often in a conversation.

Mini-Einstein also moves across a flat surface. There is no lifting of legs or complex bending of robotic joints. When told to walk, he takes a few seconds to get warmed up. The machine relies on infrared sensors that are embedded in the outsoles of the shoes to make sure it's on solid ground. The sensors also keep it from walking off a table. Ultimately, he takes small, awkward steps that are a little underwhelming when you think about the robots that are now capable of dancing around your house. But Einstein's appeal isn't intended to be in the movements. It lies in its ability to interact with kids through human-like expressions that can keep people engaged and potentially more interested in learning about the world of science.

One of the ways that the robot holds your attention is through its gaze: Einstein's brown eyes stare right at you. Through a camera placed behind a small round hole in the professor's black tie, the machine picks up movements of the face right in front of it. This tracking, known as "blob detection" in computer vision, is different from facial recognition. It doesn't record or memorize faces. Instead, it can spot facial features to detect and keep up with movements to maintain eye contact through most conversations.

The robot isn't the most advanced mechanical toy on the circuit. But, it entertains and educates, and for an early bird $249 price point it comes in just under Mattel's recently announced Aristotle -- a $300 connected speaker aimed at a young generation. It also undercuts Lego's Mindstorms collection, a range of robots starting from $350.

While Einstein is pegged as an affordable personal companion, it doesn't seem to have the output required to compete with the personal assistant speakers that have already found a spot on thousands of kitchen counters across the country. The robot's speaker, which is concealed in the professor's stomach, lacks the clarity of an Amazon Echo or Google Home. And as the machine moves its mouth and head to create the expressions that the company is famous for, a whirring sound makes its voice that much harder to pay attention to. What's more, Einstein's ability to pull information from the web is a lot slower than say Alexa, for instance. It compensates for its pace with a polite teacher-like disposition: "Let me think about that for a moment." But when you have a string of questions, it's easy to run out of patience.

What the professor lacks in mechanical ability, it makes up for with its personality. In addition to the glorious expressions that make it hard for you to look away, Einstein laces scientific theories with heavy doses of humor that most kids (and childlike adults like me) would find entertaining. While the robot is designed for kids 13 and older, I think that's a rather conservative guideline. Einstein exudes a strong cartoony vibe through its voice modulations and over exaggerated expressions that would surely keep younger kids entertained. For older children, the app offers lessons in physics, IQ games and an undeniable connection with one of the best scientists who ever lived.

Bringing Albert Einstein to the digital age, which seems like the real motivation behind the kids robot, comes through in all the little details. After an hour or so of demo time, during which the robot displayed a dozen facial expressions and talked me through his dream, I looked down at its shiny shoes. Just like the real physicist, the robotic professor wore black sandals and no socks.

(Photo credit: Chris Velazco, Engadget)

Mona is an arts and culture journalist with a focus on technology. Before moving to New York City for a masters program at Columbia Journalism School, she was the associate editor of Platform magazine in Delhi, India. She has covered dance music extensively and is a proponent of drug policy reform. On weekends, when she’s not watching post-apocalyptic films, she spends hours contemplating life as a Buddhist.
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