It's the fourth day of a scientific conference in Denver–four busy February days in a huge rabbit-warren convention center with long hallways and fluorescent lighting and serious scientists giving serious PowerPoint presentations in darkened auditoriums; four days of breakthroughs and advances–nanotech to biotech, anthropology to zoology, the whole mind-spinning stew. Four days, for the assembled journalists, of making sense of it all and banging out stories on the fly-and now comes word of what could be a light interlude: Keep an eye out for the guy carrying the head. Say what? The robotic human head. The press people for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the conference's sponsor, say the demonstration's on for tomorrow morning.
For now, though: another darkened auditorium, another presentation, this one on biologically inspired intelligent robots, robots that emulate the form and function of real creatures. Yoseph Bar-Cohen of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a roundish, gray-haired dynamo, gives a whirlwind tour of the possibilities, which he says are not far off—insect-like bots that walk and fly and crawl and hop, others that dive and swim. Cynthia Breazeal from the MIT Media Lab shows videos of the world's most lovable robot, the infant-like Kismet, looking up innocently at a woman who's practically cooing at it; Breazeal talks about how she gave Kismet emotions and why. Finally, there's David Hanson, a grad student in interactive arts and engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. He's got thick dark hair, a square jaw, urban-hip artsy sideburns, and he's moving a bit jerkily in a nervous-but-trying-to-stay-calm sort of way. This, it turns out, is the guy with the head—but the head is out of commission today and he's just showing slides: a smiling urethane self-portrait, a tan bot named Andy-roid, a pirate robot with earring and eye patch. Overlook the fact that they're disembodied heads and they all look remarkably lifelike.
And that, it turns out, makes Hanson's heads unique. The humanoids that have made news the past few years—Asimo, Grace, Kismet—are fine robots all, talented, versatile, smart, friendly. Asimo, the plastic-suited Honda humanoid, walks on two legs and welcomes visitors to the factory that builds it. Carnegie Mellon's Grace, a six-foot-tall conglomeration of metal parts on wheels topped with an animated computer-monitor face, registered itself for a conference last year, found its way to the right room, and gave a presentation. Kismet, the media darling of a few years back, looks people in the eye, smiles when they do, and learns just like a baby would, by watching and copying. Who wouldn't like these three? Other robots are being designed to work as nurses, tutors, servants and companions. But despite their talents, every one of these robots looks ... well, like a robot. They're sometimes appealing in a cartoonish sort of way, but they're metallic, awkward, clunky.
Not Hanson's heads. And for that reason, the next morning at 10:30 sharp the reporters are waiting—a roomful of them—and TV cameras are here to capture the debut of Hanson's latest, most advanced model. Hanson, 33, walks in and sets something on a table. It's a backless head, bolted to a wooden platform, but it's got a face, a real face, with soft flesh-toned polymer skin and finely sculpted features and high cheekbones and big blue eyes. Hanson hooks it up to his laptop, fiddles with the wires. He's not saying much; it might be an awkward moment except for the fact that everyone else is too busy checking out the head to notice. Then Hanson taps a few keys and . . . it moves. It looks left and right. It smiles. It frowns, sneers, knits its brows anxiously. Now the questions start, and Hanson is in his element: The head's got 24 servomotors, he says, covering the major muscles in the human face. It's got digital cameras in its eyes, to watch the people watching it, and new software will soon let the head mimic viewers. Its name is K-Bot, and it's modeled after Kristen Nelson, his lab assistant.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.