A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Friday, January 23, 2004

From LEO to Leonardo

One Sunday evening, one of the few I was at home, I watched London�s Home Movies (17:30 ITV1), and there it was: LEO, or Lyons Electronic Office, the first ever business computer, listed as such and accredited by the Guinness World Records. Earlier the same day I was browsing through the New Yorker issue currently on sale, and read about a collaboration between Stan Winston, the creator of all animatronics and special effects in films like Terminator, A.I., Jurassic Park, and Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, who is an MIT post doctoral fellow in socially intelligent humanoid robots. The result of the collaboration is going to be Leonardo, a creature that will be able to respond to humans with appropriate emotions according to what is being told to it. So, there you have it, technology that is evolving, and from the shorter name and huge size to the longer name and tiny size; Leonardo is only a mid size puppet that looks like a gremlin (only cuter).

While LEO was an 8 k machine that filled rooms, and could do basic arithmetic on punch cards, Dr. Breazeal is building the software that, according to her will make the robot not to capture human emotions but have �the pragmatic side � communicating with others and behaving more intelligently. If robots are going to have emotions, they�re going to have robot emotions.�

Have we gone full circle then? Are machine emotions possible? I could suggest further reading, but I choose to keep this light at the moment, and propose, instead of the nightmare world of �personalised advertisements� of the Minority Report, the more subtle, and a lot more �human� robots in Spielberg�s A.I. �

PS Ironically, the New Yorker website does not have issue archive, so the story is not available on line (not even for subscribers); ITV have deleted the reference to London�s Home Movies� I deeply regret the ephemeral nature of much of today�s online world� I will happily provide whoever is interested with a photocopy of the New Yorker article.

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