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Professor Einstein Is a Fun, Wacky Robot That Loves to Talk About Science

This $300 robot can answer science questions and tell jokes. But is it smart enough to hold your interest?

5 min read
Professor Einstein robot from Hanson Robotics
This $300 robot can answer science questions and tell jokes. But is it smart enough to hold your interest?
Photo: Hanson Robotics

When I tell my daughters, ages 6 and 9, that I have a new robot to show them, they perk up. I then take Professor Einstein out of the box.

“Ahhhh!” they both cry, wide-eyed.

My wife walks into the room: “Ahhh!”

Yep, Professor Einstein doesn’t look like your typical robot.

This very expressive, very wacky robotic character is a creation of Hanson Robotics, which calls it “your personal genius.” Professor Einstein can chat about science, tell jokes, check on the weather, and, naturally, quote Einstein himself. It connects to a companion app with games, videos, and interactive lessons.

And it’s constantly sticking out its tongue.

Professor Einstein is now available on eBay for a promotional price of US $250 (you also get a $50 eBay gift card). Early next month, Hanson Robotics will sell it on its website, as well as on Amazon and other retailers, for $300.

Personally, I’ve met other lifelike robots and don’t find them creepy at all. I think Professor Einstein looks pretty cool.

I put the robot on a desk and start searching for the power switch. My daughters look on and eventually warm up to it. They start poking its nose, cheeks, mustache, eyebrows, eyeballs. I try to get the unruly hair off its face. “I can probably do a half ponytail on him,” Paloma offers.

Professor Einstein robot from Hanson RoboticsThe robot’s hardware includes an ARM-based computer, nine motors, three microphones, a camera, speaker, infrared sensors, and two battery packs.Photo: Hanson Robotics

Gabi finds the power switch. It’s tucked under the robot’s shirt, on its back. “It’s on its butt!” she laughs. “That’s his back,” I say. “Butt,” she insists.

We flip the butt-switch and Professor Einstein comes alive. The initial setup involves a bunch of steps. The robot guides us through the process. It has only limited capabilities when offline, so it asks to connect to the Wi-Fi and to an iPad app, which we download from the App Store.

A handy booklet lists some of the things you can ask the robot. My daughters ask Professor Einstein to stick out its tongue, point its finger, take a walk, and “go crazy.” This last command results in a series of even wackier expressions. They laugh.

But other times Professor Einstein seems confused by our questions. When I ask, “How much is 2 plus 2?” it pauses and says, “Sorry, I could not find an answer to that question.” Hmm. I ask again, and this time the robot answers with names of actors from a movie—we can’t quite figure out. I then ask a question my daughters love to ask Siri: “What is the meaning of life?” Again, Professor Einstein offers a nonsensical answer.

That’s a problem for any talking robot. Today, people, even kids, are used to capable voice-based agents like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home. When you interact with a system that offers an inferior experience, you get disappointed very fast. That’s especially true for a robot that calls itself a genius.

We go back to the suggested questions in the booklet, like “What is the general theory of relativity?”

We also ask, “Who is Albert Einstein?”

And of course, “Professor Einstein, stick out your tongue!”

This is the first consumer robot from Hanson Robotics, which is based in Hong Kong. The company was founded by Dr. David Hanson, a roboticist known for creating incredibly realistic androids. One of them is Sophia, which Dr. Hanson recently demonstrated on the Tonight Show. Another is Albert Hubo, a humanoid with an Einstein head, which seems like a predecessor to the newer, smaller Einstein. 

Dr. Hanson tells me that his past robot creations showed the value of “deeply engaging interactions between human and robot, including facial expressions, conversation, and nonverbal communication.” He wanted Professor Einstein to have the same qualities.

Andy Rifkin, Hanson Robotics’ CTO and a former Mattel senior executive, argues that a physical robot has advantages over a virtual character. For example, studies showed that in some educational settings “physical embodiment can yield measurable learning gains,” he says.

Over the past two years, Hanson Robotics went through many versions of Professor Einstein, which originally launched as a Kickstarter project. The final design is 37 centimeters (14.5 inches) tall. Here are the tech specs:

  • The main compute board uses an ARM7 processor;
  • Two NiMH rechargeable batteries hide inside the feet, allowing the robot to run for 3 hours;
  • The main audio input is a microphone on its chest; two additional mics on the sides of the head help with sound direction location;
  • Also on its chest is a camera, used to track faces and help the robot maintain eye contact;
  • Infrared sensors on the bottom of the shoes prevent the robot from walking off of a table;
  • For movement, the robot uses nine coreless dc motors with custom gearboxes. Motors on the legs and feet allow it to walk. There are five motors in the face alone, used to create the different expressions.

My wife asks about the camera and microphones. There are growing privacy and security concerns as people bring more Internet-connected devices into the home. Users want to be certain that these gizmos can’t be hacked and used for spying. Rifkin says digital certificates and encryption protect the data transmissions, and no personal images or audio are stored in the cloud.

Professor Einstein robot from Hanson RoboticsThe robot connects to an app, which includes games, videos, and interactive lessons that the user can explore along with the robot.Photo: Hanson Robotics

Will Professor Einstein be a hit? I see two big challenges. The first is the price. At $300, it is not cheap, and buyers, especially parents, will want to make sure the robot doesn’t get tossed aside after 5 minutes of play. Indeed, that’s the second challenge: Is the robot fun enough so kids keep coming back to play with it?

My daughters often enjoy playing with their old robots. They are always discovering new features, trying new things with them. So I think the same could happen with Professor Einstein. Schools may also want to try the robot in science and robotics classes.

It’s worth noting that an important part of the experience is the companion app, called Stein-O-Matic. I find it a bit cluttered and overwhelming. But maybe my daughters will be more adept at exploring all of its modules. That’s one way I can see Professor Einstein getting more use over time. In fact, using an app to improve engagement is something that’s already working for other robots, including Cozmo, Sphero, Dash and Dot, and Kamigami.

Hanson Robotics plans to continue upgrading Stein-O-Matic and the robot’s software. They’re also working on a new coding app that’ll let users program their own interactions with the robot. That should be fun: You could create your own trivia games, for example, about the topics you like.

In the meantime, I know my daughters have already found their favorite feature:

Professor Einstein robot sticking out its tongue

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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