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WATCH: The NAO Robot Knows When You’re Happy, Sad, or Angry

Dan Tynan
Yahoo Tech

(Aldebaran)

Move over, Roomba. Robbie the Robot, it’s time to retire. There’s a new bot in town, and it cares how you feel.

We’ve seen lots of robots that can walk, talk, listen, record video, and dance. Some have even been able to bark. (RIP, Sony AIBO, 1999-2006.) But, so far, bots have been unable to recognize and express human emotions. 

Until NAO, that is. Created by Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics, NAO is the first robot to recognize what you may be feeling and respond accordingly. It is making its U.S. debut at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Using cameras and microphones embedded in its head, the 23-inch tall NAO can identify individuals by their faces, measure the volume and tone of their voices, and interpret their body language. If someone is normally a loud talker and is suddenly quiet, this could be a sign she’s sad, says CEO Bruno Maisonnier. If she’s normally quiet and she raises her voice and starts gesticulating, she could be angry or happy.

Maisonnier claims that NAO can accurately detect emotions about 70 percent of the time.

What it does from there, though, depends on whatever app is running inside NAO’s 3 GB of memory. At the moment, NAO is more of a development platform than a finished product. Maisonnier says more than 500 developers are working on apps that run under Aldebaran’s proprietary “emotional-human-interactive” operating system. Besides engineers and coders, the Paris-based company uses professional actors to help NAO recognize body language and express emotions.

You can program NAO on the fly using Aldebaran’s Choregraphe software, which lets you drag and drop modules containing different commands and string them together. In just a couple of minutes, an Aldebaran engineer “taught” NAO how to shake my hand, accept an object, and recognize it. 

Right now, the $6,000 NAO is available only to developers and educators. The company plans to roll it out to consumers in Europe and the UK later this year, with U.S. delivery probably in 2016. By then, Maisonnier says, it will have better sensors, a longer battery life (currently about two hours), enhanced servo-mechanics, and a suite of emotion-driven applications. It might even be a little cheaper.

Maisonnier sees NAO as a natural companion bot for the elderly and says it’s already being used to teach autistic kids how to relate better to their parents.

“The most important thing for us is to fight loneliness,” he says. “Or if you’re angry and losing your humanity, NAO can detect that and do something to help you bring it back. It actually helps humans be more human. That’s the part nobody expects.”

Send bottled water and lucky rabbits’ feet to Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.