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Who's Your Robot Daddy?

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The silvery little bugger just wants to be friends. Sony's latest robot project, a bipedal humanoid called QRIO, caught Pittsburgh's eye on Jan. 28 with its multiple-CPU-controlled dancing and ingratiating city name-dropping. But the robot's mission is greater than just showing off clever feats of engineering: He's an ambassador between human- and robot-kind.

Robots creep Americans out, and that's a shame, says John D. DeCuir, software development manager for Entertainment Robot America, a division of Sony Electronics. In Japan, for example, people take robots in the home for granted. But too many scary movies, like Terminator and I, Robot, have given Americans the notion that robots are out to kill us, not dance with us and be our friends.

So DeCuir, along with two-and-half-foot-tall QRIO, is aiming to increase Americans' comfort levels with our mechanized brethren and sistren.

QRIO, a play on "curiosity," goes on world tours, chaperoned by scientists, to show people that not all robots are freaky evil androids.

On Jan. 28, QRIO attempted to charm a packed Rangos Ballroom at Carnegie Mellon University. Two shows were standing-room-only, with barely space for all the laptops and digital cameras in the audience.

After finding and kicking a pink ball around the stage, QRIO busted some multi-cultural moves, demonstrating an almost eerie fluidity through tai chi, Arabic and Japanese dances and a very passable salsa.

 

Dancing is a technically fairly simple way for the robot to communicate very deeply across cultures, DeCuir said. The dance moves are programmed in advance, and the robot merely adjusts to immediate changes in the environment, like stabilizing limbs when QRIO's balance is compromised.

 

"There's some machinery in your brain that gets triggered when you see organic motion," DeCuir says. "If you were watching a tin can on wheels, you wouldn't feel an emotional connection."

 

But there's a fine line between identification and creepiness, and QRIO is meant to be humanoid, but not too much so -- it has no mouth or hair.

 

"If you create a robot that's too realistic, it may start to freak people out," DeCuir says.

 

But DeCuir seems to have developed a kind of paternal relationship with the robot -- one that is borderline freaky itself.

 

At the second presentation of the day, QRIO was a little slow on the uptake during a face recognition demonstration.

 

"QRIO says, I did this already, I don't need to do it again," DeCuir mused.

 

QRIO, of course, not being programmed to get bored or cranky, said nothing of the sort. In fact, it said nothing. It struggled to focus on sales and marketing manager Ken Orii, who was trying to get the robot's attention.

 

"You don't like your daddy?" DeCuir said.

 

During a more lucid moment, QRIO proved that he likes the 'Burgh.

 

"Hello everyone, it's a pleasure to be here at CMU," the robot chirped in a weirdly mechanized child's voice. "I saw so many people eating O fries out in the freezing cold."

 

Already practically a native.

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