But three years later, Zeno has yet to become your child’s new best friend and for a very good reason. Thanks to Hanson anddowntown Dallas-based Robokind, which Hanson co-owns, Zeno has morphed into the world’s most adorable or terrifying tool,depending on how you feel about remarkably lifelike robots that have “soul,” as Hanson puts it in conversation Friday morning. What could have become a Christmas gift forgotten by spring has been retooled into a teacher capable of foreign-language instruction or a therapist who can work with the autistic or a storyteller whose can recite from memory one of a thousand books or a search engine who can answer any question.
“I am really proud of what the Robokind team is doing,” Hanson says. “And I think the technology that is going into this is way beyond what we were proposing for Zeno in 2007. This has an incredibly powerful computer, innovative sensors the team and I have invented and developed through many years, and bringing those to production has been daunting. But the critical technical challenges have been overcome, and now it’s a matter of scaling the production, and that’s a hard place to get to.”
As a result, this week Robokind made the Zeno R25 the subject of a Kickstarter: The company is looking to raise $50,000 by November 23 in order to put the robot into “full-scale production” by February . Initially Robokind wants to manufacture at least 500, which they believe they can sell for $2,700 each. And if you kick in that much, you’re promised at least one of the first newborns.
The price will come down eventually, says Hanson, “as the price of technology continues to move in a more affordable direction.” Creating a “consumer product is in their vision,” he says. “Robokind is just taking it one step at a time.” For now, this “feature-rich version of the Zeno robot,” as he calls it, needs benefactors willing to finish his gestation.
For Hanson, he’s this close to the finish line of a project that’s been part of his life for more than a decade, during which time he’s worked with head Talking Head David Byrne, resurrected Albert Einstein and been the subject of a 2012 thriller about the missing head of Philip K. Dick. And the Kickstarter campaign comes at an opportune time:Hanson is a finalist for the 2013 World Technology Award that will be presented in New York in mid-November. He’s competing with, among others, Babak Parviz, the man behind Google Glass.
“A human-like robot, particularly one that can be cute and you can associate with, that is a platform that can forge many areas of artificial intelligence research,” he says. “The intention is that the robots will be living beings, sentient, conscientious. I think we’re on the right path by putting these kinds of tools out there. It’s a challenge to infuse these with what we might call soul.