Nao is the first robot with the capacity to convey emotions and form bonds with humans, his British makers claim.
While more conventional research into robotics concerns building mechanised marvels that can mimic human actions, a team at the University of Hertfordshire, led by computer scientist Lola Cañamero, has instead been researching machine emotions, resulting in the development of Nao.
Using sensors and cameras to indicate proximity and tactile feedback, along with a neural network and robotic learning rules, Nao is designed to model the first years of human development and interact with young children -- which is why he looks like he should be on the shelf at the Early Learning Centre.
Nao's programming, which was developed collaboratively between eight European universities, allows him to use this hardware to memorise faces, interact with humans and bond with them. Nao notices faces, facial expressions and tactile actions and responds to them, for example responding happily if he receives positive feedback, such as a smile or a pat on the head.
Nao's emotional responses are designed to aid interaction with humans. These responses include happy, sad and frightened, based on data the team at Hertfordshire collected from observing chimpanzees, and are pre-programmed. Though Nao can't specifically control his actions when making an emotional response, his programming permits him to choose when he conveys them.
If Nao wanted to let the people around him know he was sad, for example, he might look at the floor, hunched forward, and appear introspective. If Nao is scared, he is programmed to cower until comforted by someone or the object of the fear has passed, as the Guardian describes.
As Nao is capable of remembering faces, to the extent that he may recall a friendly response from one person or a hostile response from someone else, he can react accordingly. In a sense, he can (particularly with younger children) develop friendships or mild enmity.
Nao is meant to be an ambassador, of sorts, for future robotic generations. As human-robot interaction increases, enabling machines to have recognisably human emotional responses will, according to Cañamero, ease any sense of apartheid, such as Isaac Asimov envisaged in his I,Robot stories.