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Einstein wants to know how you're feeling

ALBERT Einstein looked around, made eye contact and smiled.

Of course, the renowned scientist has been dead for more than 50 years but he was reincarnated this week in the form of a so-called empathetic robot that pushes the boundaries of automation by being able to interact with people using emotional nuances.

The rubberized rendition of Einstein's head and shoulders with piercing movable eyes, a shock of white hair and distinctive mustache dazzled a crowd of 1,500 at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, California.

The robot Einstein follows people with his eyes and smiles or frowns as appropriate. Even up close, it looks surprisingly real. "It's machine empathy," roboticist David Hanson told the audience. "This is a robot that can understand feeling and mimic it."

Einstein got his personality two weeks ago when Hanson's contraption was married to software from the Institute for Neural Computation at the University of California.

Einstein's creators believe that one day computers will be able to relate to people -- listening and responding at a level not yet seen.

Some of the same computer techniques were used in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Ed Ulbrich, the movie's digital visual effect producer, showed the TED audience how Brad Pitt's expressions were imposed on a computer-created version of him as an old man. It was a task that involved 155 people.

The latest version of Einstein, which is the fourth evolution of the robot, was created two months ago.

Hanson designed Einstein to mimic all of the face's roughly 48 facial muscles using 32 motors. Two hidden cameras look out its eyes.

Nicholas Butko, a graduate student at the University of California, said the goal is "to make computers that have basic perceptual capabilities -- things that your brain does effortlessly that you never even think about."

The robot's software tracks 13 parameters, from the blink of an eye to the wrinkle of a nose. More is in the works.

"One of our goals is to make a computer that can reliably tell how sincere someone's smile is," he said.


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