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SYFY WIRE robots

Smile! Columbia University researchers create lifelike robot that grins back at you

By Jeff Spry

Hoping to foster a new emotional link between Man and machine by tapping into facial expressions as a means to communicate better, a team of researchers in the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia Engineering have created EVA, a new autonomous soft robot with a pliable face that reacts to mimic human emotions

"The idea for EVA took shape a few years ago, when my students and I began to notice that the robots in our lab were staring back at us through plastic, googly eyes," said Hod Lipson, James and Sally Scapa Professor of Innovation (Mechanical Engineering) and director of the Creative Machines Lab, in a Columbia press release.

Lipson was acutely aware of this sterile situation while inside a grocery store that used restocking robots sporting personable name badges and even a knit cap. 

"People seemed to be humanizing their robotic colleagues by giving them eyes, an identity, or a name," he noted. "This made us wonder, if eyes and clothing work, why not make a robot that has a super-expressive and responsive human face?"

Getting a robotic face to smile is no easy task since most synthetic body parts use hard plastics or metals that don’t allow for flexibility enough to display the complex variety of emotional expressions in real facial skin and its 42 distinct muscle actions.

Columbia’s EVA is able to emote the six basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise by employing artificial "muscles" activated via cables and motors that tug on specific spots on EVA's face.

"The greatest challenge in creating EVA was designing a system that was compact enough to fit inside the confines of a human skull while still being functional enough to produce a wide range of facial expressions," team member Zanwar Faraj added in the same official press release.

After a series of tests manipulating cables to allow EVA to smile or frown, Lipson and his crew noticed that EVA's blue-tinted face could pull emotional responses from their colleagues. 

"I was minding my own business one day when EVA suddenly gave me a big, friendly smile," Lipson recalled. "I knew it was purely mechanical, but I found myself reflexively smiling back."

Although EVA is still only a laboratory experiment, these technological advancements in the field of robotics could someday benefit workers in care homes, hospitals, schools, and residences.

"There is a limit to how much we humans can engage emotionally with cloud-based chatbots or disembodied smart-home speakers," said Lipson. "Our brains seem to respond well to robots that have some kind of recognizable physical presence."