This startup says its kooky, creepy Einstein robot could be the future of personal assistants

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Professor Einstein packs a lot of personality for someone who stands just 14 inches.

The walking, talking, expressive bot from Hanson Robotics debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. He became a breakout star of the convention. Crowds mobbed the company’s booth during demos to catch a glimpse of the little guy.

But the team behind Professor Einstein sees beyond a photo opp. Jeanne Lim, chief of marketing for Hanson Robotics, hopes the robot signals the future of personal assistants.

Professor Einstein, the first commercial product from Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics, aims to enrich learning for children age 13 and up by combining interactive apps and games with a recognisable robot that follows along. He’s outfitted with eight motors and sensors that allow him to make over 50 facial expressions, and he connects via WiFi to a company database that feeds him information during an interaction with a human.

During a recent demo at Business Insider’s office in San Francisco (prior to President Trump’s inauguration), Lim asked the professor who Donald Trump is. His eyes darted and his nose wrinkled as Einstein scanned the cloud.

He described Trump as a real estate mogul who will become president on January 20.

Lim explains that, in addition to playing puzzles and games on a tablet, Professor Einstein can answer “Who is?” and “What is?” questions, much like a virtual assistant such as Alexa or Siri.

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During my brief interaction with Einstein, I giggled at the sight of his tongue sticking out and found myself absentmindedly petting his soft, white hair. Lim, who has run marketing campaigns for Apple, Cisco, and Dell in the Asia Pacific region, pointed out that most people don’t pet their vacuum cleaner or Amazon Echo.

She believes that personal assistants are most effective when they take on a human form.

The team at Hanson Robotics likes to imagine a world where, someday, an artificial intelligent system packaged in a human-like shell offers a rich experience between robots and people. The company hopes to target its technology at industries that stand to benefit from having affordable, highly intelligent robots, such as veteran services, healthcare, eldery care, and education. They might teach, serve, entertain, and develop deep relationships with people.

Japan, at least, is a few years ahead in a race to that reality. The country has social robots working in hotels, senior homes, and department stores.

Hanson Robotics has made some progress. The company’s humanoid robot Sophia made a splash with her good looks and amenable spirit at South by Southwest and the Burning Man-like festival, Further Future, in 2016. She later wore Gucci on the cover of “Elle Brazil.”

But a future along the lines of “Westworld” is a long ways away. Consumers need to look no further than Professor Einstein to know that’s the truth.

For starters, he is creepy.

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Professor Einstein is always watching. Hanson Robotics

You might not really want Professor Einstein, who is cartoonish and reminiscent of the old-timey animatronics at Walt Disney World, perched on your desk during a homework session.

Professor Einstein also can’t yet learn new things, as virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri do. His knowledge come from a database of information compiled by Hanson Robotics. His answer to “Who is Donald Trump?” for example, became immediately outdated the moment the president took the inaugural oath. Lim says the company is working on opening up the platform to outside developers, so the professor can cull information elsewhere.

Lim says by launching Professor Einstein on Kickstarter, the company hopes to crowdsource funding, as well as feedback.

Professor Einstein launches on Kickstarter on January 31. The robot will retail for about $US299.

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