The Robot Had A Nose


C-3P0 doesn't have a schnoz. The degloved terminator has a bleak hole where his snout should be. Both the Jetson's Rosie and Futurama's Bender are arhinotic.

The robot sat in front of me was different. The RoboThespian is an imposing chunk of metal. LEDs blink as servomotors whine. The exposed wiring twists as the arms flex in a crude approximation of humanity.

But the face... Oh! The face! A smoothly formed impression of a human face - cheekbones, a chin, shallow dimples for eyes. And a nose. A proud, human nose jutting out from the blank plastic.

A robot with a human face

This is the SociBot by Engineered Arts. An LED pico projector hidden inside the head projects an image of the face onto the blank plastic. Custom software animates the face - from wiggling eyebrows to pursing lips. The effect is uncanny.

It was so lifelike, that one member of the audience asked how many moving parts the face had.

But, it was the nose which did it for me. I have trouble articulating why. I suppose it is because I'm used to smooth faced simulacra. Bland, anodyne, featureless, inflexible. That's what we've come to expect from robots, right?

I'm reminded of EVE from the movie WALL-E. No face (no nose!) just big blue eyes. A handful of animations is enough for human pareidolia to kick in and perceive emotions.

Eyes animated to show different expressions

The same is also true of the Anki Cozmo, where the WALL-E animators conjured 28 different emotions from a handful of LEDs.

A robot with an LED grid for eyes. They can be animated to express different emotions.

But there's something about the texture of a face. Even when it it clearly animated - and the SociBot is more cartoonlike than convincing - the physicality of the face made it lifelike.

Spillikin, a love story

I briefly met this robot at a production of Spillikin - a play about a woman with dementia and her robot carer.

The show touches on the nature of love and the ethics of outsourcing care to robots.

I urge you to get tickets for the show as it tours around the UK.

What do you reckon?