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(Special to Popular Robotics - Mobile, Alabama)
In a bustling Mobile ballroom dressing room, Brian Holt brushes coral lip-gloss on the pouty pucker of Roberta L, who looks all of a perky precious three in bangs and ruffles and shiny Mary Janes which Holts 17-year-old son Kevin feverishly polishes.
Close mouth, Brian orders Roberta, whose bewitching poker face only stares back. Close mouth! he snaps again and Roberta complies without a blink. She better not pull that crap when the judges tell her to perform her cowgirl routine! he mutters in exasperation before Roberta suddenly explodes in giggles and he and Kevin exchange groans of dismay and swears.
Such is echoed throughout the ballroom which at first blush appears just another tot beauty pageant, but theres an obvious and striking difference; in place of proud and fussy stage mothers are males in business suits to college sweatshirts, all regarding the proceedings with the tenseness of a car rally. One might sigh that finally Daddys taking a role presenting his little charmers, but the ambience is more like a football game and chess tournament, all eyes tense on each pretty contestant waddling up before the steely-eyed judges.
One such contestant is Rebekah C, a seeming two-year-old stunner in raven curls and white lace, who sassily squeals in delight dancing and skipping along the runway just before suddenly swerving right off the edge and flying into the front row audience with a crash. The few women and girls loitering in the rear gasp but nearly all the males sigh in grim sympathy as a chagrined father scoops limp, smiling Rebekah into his arms and hurries out of sight like a pariah while the judges jot inevitable demerits on their sheets.
Some just push em too hard! mutters Jonas Crandell, patting the little knee of frilly redheaded two-year-old Ginger perched atop his lap. It's hard for stepper motors to keep up with fast hoofing routines because they overload their bipedal ambulatory gyros!
Next up is Jessica P, a lovely curly-headed seeming three-year-old who flounces up before the beaming judges and spreads her skirt and bobs in what would be a perfect curtsy except she suddenly freezes still, and after five seconds the word crash mumbles around the room and the groaning judges again mark their papers while Frank Corso marches up with ill-concealed irritation and sheepishness to tuck Jessicas frozen form up under his arm. Stage fright, he quips sardonically, moving off while nods of polite sympathy waft his way.
By now you realize by everyones casualness of these tots misfortunes that something very strange is afoot at this kiddie pageant. Indeed, in the third annual Cyberdoll Pageant all the girls are in a real way sister-clones of one Synthia prototype born at United Tektykes in Urbana, Illinois.
A hybrid of Indy 500, beauty pageants and computer chess rallies, the pageant is a showcase and test track in the race to perfect a true quasi-android, its cornerstone being a revolutionary electronic novelty originally intended as a unique upscale animated household ornament.
Synthias original pitch
was being a sort of frilly pet cherub that ambles about the house by
itself just looking cute, cites pageant sponsor and former
Disney animatronics engineer Emil Vaslovik, founder of Silicone
Valley-based United Tektykes.
His revolutionary Synthia cyberdoll
captured the worlds awe and heart, and a chunk of the toy market
despite a hefty four-figure price tag.
Synthias are priced only a little higher than fashionable porcelain dolls, which are now a glutted and weathered market. Our product offers instead a live and very lifelike rendering of a real toddler. In about 10 years, most most premium doll manufacturers will follow our path.
With live-model based body English AI, linear drive muscle systems, subcutaneous facial articulation servos and lifelike latex foam skin, Synthia has been more likened to a proto-android than a souped-up life-sized doll, says guest cyberneticist Ted Lawson.
Synthias the logical progression of where the doll industry was going, but now its mutating into an entirely new industry altogether where you're building ADAs (Android-like Domestic Aides) as household appliances. Lawson admits itll be a few years before this comes about: These cybertots have roughly the CPU brainpower of a grasshopper, lack fine human dexterity and true vision, are barely strong enough to haul their own weight around and simply too small, being basically designed as autonomous ornaments for the yuppie set, but thanks to concept tournaments such as these, in 10 or 15 years well see true android butlers or maids.
Though there are actually only six models of Synthias prancing like pixies in over 9,000 households, they are easily modified in skin tone and skeletal form to allow literally hundreds of customized variants, from brunettes to blondes, from Caucasian creme to African chocolate in shapes from chubby toddlers to slinky tots.
Its exactly like a real kiddie pageant, remarks former Miss North America and pageant coach Heidi Cole, who proposed and presides over the pageant. The spin-off of the Jon Benét tragedy cast a black light over child beauty pageants and what values it instills in young girls, yet there's a fascination, a charm and whimsy to seeing young girls as princesses and fantasy fems that we don't really want to lose in a denim world. When we realized that people, particularly male techies and engineers, were tinkering with and tweaking up their wives and daughters Synthias to perform unique tasks and behaviors as a hacker's hobby on the sly, we said why not hold Synthia contests that are both robot rallies and classy pageants with prizes based on both technical performance and beauty just like real pageants are? We'd our scoffers at first, but as you see by our wall-to-wall spectators we attract both camps quite well.
The rules of the contest are simple: The doll-droid who best passes for human wins. Its a take-off of the Turing Test, only a little cuter, Cole says. The test is unforgiving for accurate poise, human behavior, facial expressions and reflex fidelity, and the prize is a lucrative contract with United Tektykes to share the AI techniques which the user availed to groom his winning cyberdoll with stellar human performance.
Judge Erma Dobbs outlines the contest
criteria as ambulatory fidelity, gestural appropriateness,
objective tracking and overall cuteness.
Due to the potential multibillion-dollar
stakes of a true ADA household robot market beyond
cyberdolls, often outside corporations know no bounds linking with and
demonstrating a winner. We had to disqualify Helva G because General
Dynamics turned out to be way more than just her sponsor and because rules forbid
using cruise missile A.I. technology, says Howard Dobbs. After
all, this is an amateur's show.
In the dressing room, Calvin Hines sits next to a sonar display wired to little Lucys temple to calibrate her lovely blue eyeballs. The display shows her mind's eye view of a gray grainy rendering of tables and people and Hines head. People forget that they're optically blind; that their eyes are really only glass dummies slaved to move by servos from a phased-array sonar sensor in here, he says, tapping Lucys creamy forehead which is actually a dome cover housing a sonar dish where a real little girl's brains would normally be. Optical vision is way too expensive and bulky right now, so weve got to make do. The sonar detects anyone coming by and commands the eyeballs to track you like she's really looking at you while fuzzy logic software interprets your facial features as friendly or a stranger or just simple inanimate objects to avoid or handle. Obviously these techtykes aren't mere souped-up Barbies.
Some think Cyberdoll pageants threaten to supersede real pageants, not only because of their huge additional engineering and techie draw, but because they also attract doll fanciers and followers of human pageants.
Its almost perfect, ex-stage mom April Summers quips. It has all the fun of seeing little girls all dressed and making cute goofs without any stage parents being flies in the ointment pumping up the egos of real little girls with the wrong message about beauty.
Backstage, the kids are carefully fitted into pricey costumes by businessmen and fussy techies. In a corner one father hands his top-bare tot a wall-socket wired induction disk, which she dutifully presses against her chest. Theyre no bunnies. They only go maybe an hour between recharges, Mark Pink says while his Melissa Q takes a break for juice.
Above all, one is struck by the physical beauty and human perfection of the cybercontestants. Synthias use a cellular foam latex with nearly the same texture and transparency as real skin. Unlike genetic features, a user can sculpt a unique face like an artist for the most pleasing effect. Some faces are even molded from composite renderings of real people.
Thats where the beauty scores rack in, cites Howard Dobbs, grooming his stunning Karyn, whose ethereal Eurasian looks make her a stage favorite.
Personally, I think fantasy faces are cheats, said Thomas Olville, applying a powder puff to his squirming Fiona X. I had her face molded off my three-year-old daughter, Tanya. [When theyre tucked in bed together] you cant tell whos who!
Many Synthia owners join Synthia user
groups though they wince at being called users, preferring
owner instead. They also resent being called grown men
playing with oversized mechanical dolls.
But in the end its the judges
who must be swayed, with the elegant little tykes in the front row
seats, perched on their users wives knees, waiting for
their chance to waddle up before the judges and strut their stuff. As
Wendys user, Harvey Vintas, said: Once theyre here
theres nothing else you can do but pray they follow their
programs and their servos dont lock.
Synthias are the beginning of real androids, and a techie just cant get closer than this! states Max Vogel over his pretty-in-pink Brenda E. You hack em more AI than a mainframe and tweak their mechanics better than a Formula One. Its just like raising thoroughbreds, like your very own kid - only they usually do what you train em [to do]!
Also at the talent tournament, like a proud grandfather, was Kinetographic Systems, whose vast database of recorded and digitized human expressions, gestures and movement empower the technotots with their uncanny humanity.
Were the Microsoft of replicate human behavior, clucked K.S.s Chuck Manalow. But it takes real patience and skill to refine our programs into a convincing presentation.
Meanwhile, back on the floor, Jason McCain holds pretty Jennifer M on his lap. The gray-eyed, blond two-year-old in pale blue ruffles made first runner-up last year and was a favorite until during the Turing Tot ABCs interview when a voice feedback loop shrilly destroyed the rooms P.A. system and the master of ceremonies left ear.
We fixed her can but good. It wont happen again, asserted Jason, heavily bouncing Jennifer on his knee. She only effuses giggles, oblivious to the distress she caused. A cause célèbre at this show is Kathy O, a three-year-old beauty whose high-definition phased-array sonar can recognize and navigate to her owner in a crowded room. This power technology promises to reduce incidents such as last year when luckless Bethany U waddled off unseen out a rear exit and greeted a Mack truck barreling down Route 128.
In the near future, affordable true visual discrimination AI will allow all kinds of neat stuff, Lawson projects. They'll run, climb, swim, manipulate their surroundings and play physical games like tag or ping-pong. Also, they'll not only talk with replicated oral tracts for a natural-sounding voice, but at the level of a two-year-old. Beyond that, once live-model juvenile psychology databases are available, I think we'll see a market for behaviorally-correct surrogate tots for bachelors who want an offspring experience without the headaches.
So far the Cyberdoll Pageant has grown explosively but not without its own unique problems. Due to last years Laurie W scandal, wherein the exposed winner was later stripped of her crown, each contestant now must submit to physical inspection, much like real child pageants sometimes do to affirm the sex of suspect contestants.
Guy tried to pass his real daughter! snorted George Hemmings, patting his Samantha Zs arm. [Laurie] could pout pretty good. Too good. It simply wasn't fair.