David Hanson’s robots can creep people out.
Their heads are so lifelike, their skin so textured and realistic, that Candy Sidner, a competing roboticist, called his Albert Einstein robot “spookily cool ... a giant step forward.”
Hanson, who started his career as an artist and spent time working in Disney’s Imagineering Lab, said he flirts with being too realistic for comfort. His work, he said, “poses an identity challenge to the human being.”
“If you make it perfectly realistic, you trigger this body-snatcher fear in some people,” he said. “Making realistic robots is going to polarize the market, if you will. You will have some people who love it and some people who will really be disturbed.”
Hanson’s robotics company in Dallas is the flip side of an industry focused on making robots more human on the inside. Hanson makes “conversational character robots.” They are mostly human-looking heads using a skin-like material that he invented called Frubber. They are battery-powered, walk and are expressive, but from the neck down they don’t look human at all.
The issue of being too human-looking is called “uncanny valley” syndrome, and Hanson embraces it with the passion and line-crossing of an avant-garde artist, which he also is.
Hanson made a robot head modeled on his own, but it wasn’t for use as a robot. It was part of an art show where he made his self-portrait robot a “large homeless robot figure in a box.” The idea was to go out of the “comfort zone” of science, he said.
But Hanson is also a businessman who is designing entertainment robots for the home. He hopes to have two-foot robots — with human-looking heads that are more cartoonish than uncannily accurate — that can dance, make eye contact, talk and recognize your face. The idea is to price them at $3,000 and get them on the market in about a year.
“It would be very much like Astro Boy in the old TV series,” Hanson said.