â€śLook into my eyes and keep still,â€ť Socibot says to me in its pleasant but mechanical voice. Before I can do anything to comply with the command, the Putnam Museumâ€™s machine continues: â€śI would say you are a 44-year-old man.â€ť I laugh. â€śYour face is happy,â€ť it says.
Clearly, Socibot needs to learn that when it comes to age, itâ€™s better to guess low â€“ as Iâ€™m on the cusp of 43, thank you very much.
This was a demonstration of Socibotâ€™s facial-recognition feature, but the talking, moving head is no one-trick robot. It does impressions â€“ including of some famous cinematic artificial intelligences (2001â€™s HAL 9000, Arnold Schwarzeneggerâ€™s cyborg from the Terminator series). It can play card games using QR codes â€“ which can also be employed to tell visitors about other features in the Putnamâ€™s new Science Center.
But mostly, it shows the complexity of human expression. Using the â€ścomposeâ€ť touch-screen interface, users can program Socibot to communicate â€“ not merely typing the words it will speak but controlling its voice and nonverbal cues that impart meaning, from the movement of the eyes and head to flushed cheeks to the set of the mouth.
This teaches the challenges and skills involved in getting machines to complete multifaceted tasks. Nichole Myles, the Putnamâ€™s vice president of education and exhibits, noted that Socibot allows visitors to â€śexperience what early coding and programming is.â€ť
And because the Science Center is geared to children â€“ with the goal of getting them interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers â€“ Socibot has also been programmed to chide users who try to put inappropriate words and phrases into its mouth.
Socibot is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated (and expensive) components of the STEM center, and you could spend a few hours trying to fine-tune the proper expressions involved in, for instance, Hamletâ€™s famous â€śTo be or not to beâ€ť monologue.
But given the breadth and depth of science-related experiences available at the Putnamâ€™s Science Center, to spend too much time at one station would be wasting opportunities. Thereâ€™s the feature that visibly demonstrates turbulence; the lift-yourself-up pulley; the airways fountain; ferrofluid; the gravity wall; the lever tug-of-war; the 3D-printing station; robot vision; the dinosaur dig scheduled to open this summer ... .
Iâ€™ve spent a lot of time as a kid, a kid at heart, and a parent at childrenâ€™s museums and science centers, and the Putnamâ€™s STEM center is a marvel â€“ especially considering how quickly it came together and how little it cost.