Cornell's New 'Social' Robot Can Literally Get Goosebumps
For years, technology has had an ongoing struggle with the Uncanny Valley, which has been made painfully obvious by robots like Sophia (created by Hanson Robotics) and weird digital homunculi like Soul Machines' "Baby X."
If Westworld is the Holy Grail of life-like artificial humans, then we're still a long way off, but that doesn't mean we're not inventing some primo weird stuff—like the new robot from Cornell University that can express its emotions by creating a combination of goosebumps and spikes along its rubbery skin.
The idea, Cornell says, is that robotics has been trying to nail the delicate art of expressing emotions through facial expressions, but nature offers plenty of examples of expression that use skin or fur instead—a cat's hair might stand up when it's scared, while a bird might ruffle its feathers. Just like how our smartphones have a whole language of sounds and different patterns of vibrations to quickly communicate a new message or low battery, tactile communication may be a new way for users and robots to interact.
As the video below shows, the demo robot looks sort of like a car stereo with two big paddles on either side. The paddles are covered in elastomer, a kind of soft, rubbery skin that can bulge and change when air is pumped into it, creating bumps or spikes depending on the 'mood' of the robot:
Two of the advantages of using this kind of skin-based communication is that it's quiet (no need for your robot to call out your name or make beeping sounds to communicate distress) and that it can be understood by the hearing-impaired.
That being said, we feel that there's a bigger question that needs to be asked: why do robots need to be able to express emotions like anger, sadness, or fear?
Sure, it's nice to see a friendly robotic face, but attempting to give robots emotions runs the risk of another kind of Uncanny Valley, one that sits between "pleasant companion" and "robotic sociopath."
Turning a robot into a smiling rubber porcupine doesn't help either.