Scientists develop an 'android child' that can convey six facial expressions

Welcome to the uncanny valley.
Derya Ozdemir
Meet Nikola, android child.RIKEN

A team of researchers from Japan's RIKEN Guardian Robot Project has created an android child called Nikola capable of successfully displaying six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust.

While the android child is definitely not at the Ex Machina level, the project, led by Wataru Sato from RIKEN, is significant since it's the first time the quality of these six android-expressed emotions has been examined and validated.

How does it work? 

The humanoid robot is equipped with 29 pneumatic actuators that control the movements of artificial muscles within its face. It also uses six extra actuators to move its head and eyeballs, making it even more life-like.

Pinpointing the locations of the actuators was probably the most important aspect of the project, and they were determined using the existing Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which specifies which biological "facial action units", or muscles, are used in the expression of specific emotions, as described in a paper published in the Frontiers in Psychology.

To make things more realistic, the researcher used actuators that are air-powered, enabling them to operate smoothly and quietly. This makes Nikola appear less like a robot and more like a real child; yet, we would argue that staring at the robot child takes us on a journey to the uncanny valley.

Scientists develop an 'android child' that can convey six facial expressions
Nikola displaying six basic emotions. Source: RIKEN

Nikola in lab studies - The android child's expressions were put to the test with volunteers trying to identify which emotions it was displaying. Some emotions were easier to understand than others, as, for example, its skin didn't wrinkle as easily as real human skin. This made disgust harder to identify; however, the scientists will be tackling such shortcomings in the future.

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"In the short term, androids like Nikola can be important research tools for social psychology or even social neuroscience," said the lead scientist Wataru Sato. "Compared with human confederates, androids are good at controlling behaviors and can facilitate rigorous empirical investigation of human social interactions."

As of this writing, Nikola is going through a Pinocchio-like existence as it's yet to have a body. In the future, the technology could be incorporated into full-bodied caregiving robots that can assist people who live alone, as an expressive face could allow clients to relate to the robots more easily.