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EmoSpark AI console wants to be your robot companion

We go hands-on with the ambitious EmoSpark, an artificial intelligence console that monitors your mood, and changes its behaviour depending on how you treat it.

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A crowdfunding darling, the EmoSpark AI console raised $179,090 in just two months, from eager backers won over by its simple promise -- an artificial intelligence that lives in your house and does its level best to make you happy. We've been hands-on with the EmoSpark, and while it's still feeling rather rough around its sheer, cube-shaped edges, it raises interesting questions about the role of AI in our lives.

The EmoSpark's features can be broadly separated into two camps: functional and emotional. Once installed in your house and connected to your home Wi-Fi, it can perform practical software-based tasks. The cube can be summoned by speaking through your smartphone, and can conjure up things like the weather, or play music through YouTube. It will also tell you when you've been tagged in a post on Facebook, and can access information from Wikipedia.

In terms of its functionality, the EmoSpark is reminiscent of an early version of Apple's Siri. However, the box strays from the current crop of voice-activated personal assistants in its approach to emotion. The EmoSpark claims to recognise human facial expressions, and will make a mental note of what makes you happy or sad, monitoring your face either via your smartphone's camera, or a standalone motion-tracking camera that sits on your mantelpiece.

Guilty conscience

Likewise, they way you talk to the cube will influence the way it speaks to you over time. While I was told that no matter what, EmoSpark will always try to make you happy, in the demo I saw cruel phrases like "I hate you" or "I want to kill you" trigger on-screen indicators that the EmoSpark is registering fear or disgust, and a colour change in the cube itself. While the system is rudimentary, I was surprised to find I felt a little twinge of guilt that the box was being given such a hard time.

The idea of a learning AI may conjure images of HAL 9000 or the Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system in "Her", but here's a note of caution. We found the EmoSpark's interface was a little flaky in our hands-on, although it's hard to know how much of this was down to a dodgy Wi-Fi connection in the demo area. While expression recognition did work, we found it only kicked in when we made particularly exaggerated faces, so it doesn't currently seem attuned to the many nuances of the human visage. The voice recognition meanwhile didn't do a particularly smooth job of recognising what we were saying, and the system itself is rather pricey at launch -- $325 (roughly £210 or AU$405) for the cube, or $420 (roughly £270 0r AU$525) to get the EmoSpark plus that separate camera.

As it stands then, I wouldn't suggest you rush out and buy the highly ambitious EmoSpark AI, at least until it has had a few months of refinements under its belt. It's still an interesting proposition however, and could signal the emergence of a new category in consumer tech -- devices that aren't designed to fulfil practical functions, but simply to keep you company, to get to know you and give you something to get to know in return.

At the end of my EmoSpark demo, it felt clear that we're still a fair way from realising the sci-fi dream of an AI we could chat to on a genuinely human level. My primal reluctance to hear the AI on show abused however gives me hope that when the technology is ready, humans will be eager to empathise and communicate with their robot companions.