Engineers use AI to create a robot that can smile back

At some point in the future, engineers foresee a time when robots are a normal part of everyday life, providing care for children and the elderly and providing labor. For humans, facial expressions are unspoken ways to communicate and play a significant role in building trust between people. Scientists have been working on creating a robot that can use appropriate facial expressions at the proper time.

Engineers at the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia Engineering have been working for half a decade to create a robot called EVA, a new autonomous robot with a soft and expressive face it's able to respond to match the expressions of humans nearby. One of the researchers on the project, Hod Lipson, says the idea for EVA began to form several years ago.

Lipson, the James and Sally Scapa Professor of Innovation and director of the Creative Machines Lab, says that he and his students began to notice robots working stocking shelves and other tasks out in the real world were being humanized by people who worked with them. Humanization took the form of things like googly eyes and hand-knit hats. The researchers thought that if adding things like hats and clothing to the robots made them more human and relatable, building a robot with an expressive face would do even more.

The team says the biggest challenge in creating their robot was designing a system compact enough to fit inside the confines of a human skull yet functional enough to produce a range of facial expressions. The team used 3D printing to build parts with complex shapes that could integrate seamlessly into the machine's skull. Once the mechanics portion was sorted out, the team moved onto the next phase that involved programming the AI to guide the facial movements.

EVA uses the learning AI to read and then mirror expressions on nearby human faces. The AI learns new human expressions by trial and error from watching videos of itself. The team admits that EVA is still a laboratory experiment and is very far from being able to mimic the complex ways humans communicate with facial expressions.