Human-like robots are more and more sophisticated 

Humanoid robots have long been sci-fi characters, but they are perfecting every day. Engineered Arts, a UK-based designer, and manufacturer of such robots, recently showed off one of its most life-like creations with its last bot Ameca, which can display what appears to be the most human-like facial expressions by a robot to date.

Engineered Arts, the company behind Mesmer robot series, has unveiled a new creation that may weird you out even more. “Ameca is a new humanoid robot that does not have realistic hair and skin like Mesmer, but can instead show more human-like, natural-looking expressions than others we’ve seen,” as The Verge has reported.

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In a video posted by Engineered Arts on Youtube, Ameca first displays confusion, as it appears to wake up as if it were surprised by its existence. Then it seems surprised to see the viewer or camera, and finishes the video with a smile and welcoming hand gesture.

The improvements in facial animation look to result from more fluid movements than we’ve seen before. By contrast, the Mesmer “Fred” robot had decent head movements but looks like he just had a shot of Novocain in his entire lower face when he speaks.

Ameca appears to have a fully articulated head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands, but Engineered Arts notes that “none of its robots can walk” – though the company is studying that capability. It’s unclear how Ameca’s facial expressions were animated, but some form of motion capture seems a good bet. The company said that Ameca is a “platform for developing Artificial Intelligence” but lets others develop the necessary machine learning algorithms. Engineered Arts have previously said that it uses “powerful, silent, high-torque” motors to drive Mesmer’s body and head movements, with everything designed from scratch to work together perfectly. It also uses sensors like cameras, depth sensors, LiDAR, and microphones.

None of the robots at Engineered Arts has been designed to do anything other than impress an audience. Mesmer was programmed in a way that allowed it to give a speech using the voice of a person behind the scenes. But they cannot walk or move around -they move only their arms, hand wrists, fingers, neck, head, eyes, and mouth. Ameca has been designed as a robot platform-customers who buy it can add AI and other software to give the bot desired abilities. The software it comes with is geared toward creating life-like expressions: it can smile, frown, wink, and open and close its mouth; it can show surprise or frustration, or amusement. As for Mesmer, it used 3D scans of actual humans to give the bot accurate bone structure, skin texture, and life-like facial expressions. In a video posted just days after the Ameca showcase, Mesmer makes a series of expressions that look even more convincing, given that this bot has more life-like skin and facial features than Ameca does at the moment. This latter has, on the other hand, grey-colored skin, with deliberate gender -and race-neutral characteristics: “we’ve tried to be gender-neutral, race-neutral. We’re just trying to make something that has the basic human characteristics -expression- without putting anything else on top of that. So, hence the grey faces”.

The reason behind creating these humanoid robots is simple, as Engineered Arts founder Will Jackson told Reuters: “it is to interact with people. The humanoid face is a very high bandwidth communication tool, and that’s why we built these expressive robots”. Engineered Arts designs and manufactures humanoid entertainment robots for science centers, theme parks, and businesses. Ameca is now available for purchase or rental. However, Jackson believes it is the perfect test platform for AI: “many people working on Artificial Intelligence interaction, all kinds of new apps that are using vision systems, segmentation, face recognition, speech recognition, voice synthesis. But what you don’t see is the hardware to run all that software on. What we are trying to do is to provide a platform for doing AI”. He adds: “a lot of communication is not verbal. So it’s not all about speech. It is about expression. It’s about gestures. A simple move like that can mean a thousand words. The robot does not have to say anything. So, the last thing we wanted to make was a robot that said, “Please repeat the question.”

The abilities of Ameca and the company’s prior robots are the result of over 15 years’ worth of research and development. Ameca is currently available for sale at the cost of US$ 133,000 through the Engineered Arts website, but certain models are also available for rent for events. If you are interested in buying it, you can get a close-up look at it soon as Engineered Arts plans to show Ameca off at CES 2022 in Las Vegas.

Yvan Barbeau

The Verge: A humanoid robot makes eerily life-like facial expressions
Global News: Meet Ameca, the remarkable (and not at all creepy) human-like robot
Techxplore: Ameca robot shows off a new level of human-like facial expressions
Engadget: ‘Ameca’ robot shows off more human-like facial expressions

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