Home-made robot maid raises questions

by Paul Jay, CBC News.ca

It's hard to know what to make of Aiko, the robot helper dressed as an Anime teenager that has received a truckload of press in the past few days.

Brampton, Ont. programmer Trung Le garnered international attention after UK tabloids reported on Aiko as his "robot girlfriend." The 33-year old Trung said he has racked up $21,000 in credit card bills and spent over a year work on his project. Both The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star visited also visited Trung, who told the Star the five-foot-tall robot with the hourglass figure was "not really my girlfriend."

"Aiko's a robot who can do a lot of things, and hopefully more soon," he told the Star.

As to what exactly Aiko can do is up for interpretation, depending on how convincing you find Trung's videos of her interactions, though he told the Star the robot can can speak about 13,000 sentences in Japanese and English.

I'm a bit skeptical myself, but not being an expert in the field I asked UBC professor Alan Mackworth, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and is the past president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, about what he thought.

After checking out the links, Mackworth said everything Trung claims Aiko can do is "do-able within the state of the art."

"What is not clear without testing the robot is its flexibility to cope with a wide range of visual and spoken inputs. Is it preprogrammed just to cope with a few cases? So I confess to being skeptical," he said in an e-mail.

Putting aside his skepticism though, Mackworth said he is nonetheless encouraged "to see an independent inventor experimenting with these techniques."

"AI and robotics technology is advanced enough now that garage entrepreneurs can do interesting things on their own," he said.

Trung's Quixotic pursuit reminds me on some level of the work of Troy Hurtubise, who's bear-protection suit was immortalized in the documentary Project Grizzly and who, the last we heard, was building a suit of body armour reminiscent of the garb of choice of Halo's Master Chief.

But if he wants to distance himself from the "robot girlfriend" accusations, perhaps Trung might consider toning down the wish-fulfillment fantasies he outlines on his website. Under a list of future tasks he would like to program Aiko to perform, he includes "feed me sushi", "massage my shoulders and neck" and "If I lie my head down on Aiko lap, have her clean my ears with a Q-tip."

For a story short on details, that still qualifies as "too much information."