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Ape-headed, ape-controlled, cannon-wielding robot is for real

No, it's not the star of a Tim Burton remake of "Bedtime for Bonzo." The RoboBonobo is apparently a legit part of studying language in great apes.

Imagine a wheeled robot with an ape's head. Now imagine that the robot is actually controlled by an ape -- one wielding an iPad. Now imagine that the robot is chasing you around and shooting at you with a cannon.

A prototype RoboBonobo Ken Schweller

No, it's not your latest banana-split-fueled nightmare or a Tim Burton remake of "Bedtime for Bonzo." Apparently this is reality, folks -- or at least it could be, if enough people pony up funds on Kickstarter.

Ken Schweller, head programmer at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa -- a research center which, among other things, studies language development in bonobos -- says he's trying to raise money to further develop his "RoboBonobo" robot.

Schweller hopes the device will one day let caged bonobos interact with visitors. It's part of a larger Kickstarter effort to fund the "Bonobo Chat" app.

As Schweller explains in the embedded video, the seven or so bonobos at the research facility already work with specially designed touchpad-like keyboards to communicate with humans via symbols called lexigrams. Now Schweller and Co. would like to create portable versions of the keyboards so the apes and researchers can communicate on the go, be they, as Schweller puts it, "across the room, across the country, or, you know, perhaps just up a tree."

The app will also automatically translate human speech into lexigrams displayed on the keyboards, as well as convert lexigrams into speech. And the program will let the apes bust out the RoboBonobo and give select visitors a soaking with a water cannon. (Schweller has already developed video-game-like games for the bonobos.)

As of this writing, Schweller has raised less than $1,000 toward his $20,000 goal. So, check out the video, see what you think, and decide if you want to put your money where your monkey is. Those who pledge $500 or more get to use the app to engage in a Skype session with one of the verbose bonobos. Besides, it's not every day you get to say you contributed to an app for apes -- or to the development of an ape-headed, ape-controlled, cannon-equipped robot.

(Via IEEE Spectrum)