What is is with techy people when they come across robots? It seems that a machine merely has to bat a servo-driven eyelid for normally sane, balanced geeks to completely drop their brains on the floor.

Take this recent article over at the usually-sensible Engadget.

The photo you see above is of Bina48, one of the most advanced humanoid robots around. Bina48 resides at the Terasem Movement Foundation in Bristol, Vermont, and while she doesn’t exactly excel at conversation, she’s far more coherent than many we’ve spied… her existence and nearly constant evolution is pretty impressive and we’re going to keep our eye on her as we move toward the future.

In case you couldn’t figure it out, Bina is the one on the left. I know, I know, the astonishing human likeness makes it tricky to pick the robot from the New York Times reporter, but you’ll have to take my word for it. The spastic wobbling head on a plinth is in fact a machine.

Engadget’s acknowledgement that Bina ‘doesn’t exactly excel at conversation’ is somewhat of an understatement. The New York Times reporter attempted to ‘interview’ Bina and the effect is less of a conversation than something like an attempt to interpret the ravings of a simpleton on peyote.

I encourage you to watch the video of the interview now, to experience the full effect of Bina’s striking humanness.

I fail to see how this is in any way more impressive than the numerous other ‘realistic’ robots we’ve examined previously on The Cow. Engadget really needs to get out more. Perhaps on a date with Aiko or Roxxxy, who, even if not as ‘anatomically correct’ as their makers would have everyone believe, at least have bodies.

The New York Times reporter starts out bravely with Bina, but realises in two sentences that she’s been sent out on one of those stories that has little salvaging.

“Hi Bina,” she says, cheerily.

“Er… so where were we?” asks Bina, like a junkie being roused from an opium dream.

“I’m Amy. I’m a reporter,” says the NYT girl, with the sinking feeling that she’d have been better off doing the kitten-stuck-up-a-tree story.

“There is probably more to you than just that,” interrupts Bina, with a sneer.1

Poor Amy cuts her losses by having the story go to a voiceover:

I had lofty goals for my interview with the Bina48 robot. I imagined me, the intrepid New York Times correspondent, communing on camera with a new kind of intelligent silicon species.

Yes, dear Amy, and I bet that’s just how your editor sold it to you. Well, you’ve learned your lesson about robots haven’t you? You could have saved yourself a lot of grief if you’d been a constant reader of The Cow. We’ve covered all this in depth on numerous occasions.

Amy persists, to her detriment. She asks Bina several times if she’s ready for a conversation while the robot wobbles its badly-wigged head around, doing an uncanny impression of Parkinson’s patient trying to get out of a straight jacket. It finally decides on the well-worn AI strategy of rephrasing the question, which Amy takes as an affirmation.

“Cool!” says Amy.

“Ambiguous,” replies Bina, in an astonishingly embarrassing 1950s ‘does-not-compute’ kind of way. “Cold weather or cold sickness?”

Oh dear. That’s a big fat ‘F’ for you on the Turing Test, Bina.2

After an hour of ‘exhausting’ rapport with Bina, Amy calls it quits. Bina has lolled her head around,3 interrupted the conversation with baffling observations, misinterpreted questions, and advanced her ‘opinions’ on artificial intelligence in a completely unconvincing manner, all the while effectively demonstrating that she is anything BUT intelligent. Eventually, she attempts to explain her poor performance away on ‘having a bad software day’.

“You know how that is,” she pleads.4 NO WE DON’T, Bina. We are humans. We don’t have ‘bad software’ days.5

As I see it, every day is a bad software day for Bina. I’m perplexed when things like this get wheeled out time and time again as evidence of how the robotic future is just over the horizon. Bina is really nothing more that a mechanical appendage of software routines that have been around for decades. There are a few ‘physical’ additions (Such as Bina’s attempts to smile which are so creepy that I think makers of horror movies would do well to take notes) but all in all Bina is no more impressive than Fake Captain Kirk or Eliza. Obviously Engadget has a very different idea to me of what the future with robots ought to be like.


Thanks to Atlas for providing more robot-spotting fun.


  1. Seriously – we are SO attuned to facial gestures that, in my opinion, it’s way better to just forget them than to take the risk that they will be inappropriate. Watch someone closely next time you have a conversation, and see how much of the intent is carried by facial movement. You may be surprised. []
  2. Lesson Number 2: Make sure your robot knows the difference between literalness and colloquialism. My first question to a being who I suspected of masquerading as a human would be something like ‘How’s it hangin’ dawg?’ []
  3. Maybe if they programmed her to drool? It would complement the overall effect, that’s for sure. []
  4. The programmers are obviously going for wit here, but succeed only in bathos. []
  5. That excuse is going to go down really well when the first robot babysitter to drown someone’s child in the bath tries to blame it on ‘a bad software day’. []

Some years ago a tree in our backyard was cut down, and the stump cleared. Now, all through the year we have this weird fungus that keeps on growing up where the roots were. Violet Towne likes to ruthlessly lay into it with the mattock, but despite her best efforts, a little bit of rain and up it comes again.

It’s really quite an unsettling organism. It has a kind of a dead fleshy texture and colour… If you look very closely, it’s sort of brain-like. And recently it’s started to ooze something that looks awfully like blood…

If anyone actually knows what’s going on here, I’d love some more information. What is the red stuff? It seems very slightly oily… not particularly sticky. It washes off in the rain and you can quite clearly see little pits where it was – so it’s something that the fungus has evolved to do. It doesn’t seem to attract insects and I can’t for the life of me think of what it might be for (other than to conjure images to disturb my sleep).

On a website for a film called Paranormal Activity, shouldn’t the only choice for trailer size be ‘Medium’?

Australia has really only two poisonous spiders of note, and this is one of them. It is called the Redback (after the red patch you can see on the end of its abdomen). Redback spiders hardly ever kill anyone anymore – the last certified recorded death was in the 1960s (although a bite from one would probably hurt and make you sick).

I found this one under our verandah. We have a lot of them. If I had to choose to have a lot of Redbacks under my house though, I would rather have this kind:


The robot creators seem hell bent on proving my point. Today, Atlas points me to the next chapter in the ‘humanizing’ of the machines: The First Robot Kiss.

Here – take a moment to watch it with all its unbridled passion on Engadget.

I can only imagine the conversation afterward:

Oh, Gail 34z Beta! I felt a seismic disturbance of 6.5 on the Richter Scale! It seemed to me that ignition of carbon and suphur compounds caused colourful inflorescences of magnesium, iron and titanium to stimulate the phosphors in my CCDs!

OK robots. Today’s homework:

You know how good it sounded in the telling? It was better in the reality. If you can conjure up an image of a ‘Gothic Island Paradise’, Masthead Island is it. Probably just as well then that the film I’m working on is a ghost story…

My main regret is that I only had three days to spend on the island itself – the rest of the week was taken up with travel. It sure ain’t an easy place to get to. Or to escape from… (mwahahahaha!)

I can’t really talk too much about the film just yet – and anyway, no-one wants a creepy tale spoiled for them. Let me just say that the island itself is a significant character in the story and it fulfills its role better than I could have ever expected, with beautiful bone-white coral sand beaches, a lagoon the colour of nicely aged cyanide, and a dense interior of hollow Birdcatcher Pisonia glades edged with blurry casuarinas and Velvet Soldierbush, urgently whispering suggestions to visitors to leave before it’s too late…

I recorded the sound of waves on the distant reef, the shush of the casuarinas, the sombre lap of the incoming tide on broken coral. I made some wind chimes from shells and coral and recorded them in the quiet of the forest – a brittle, tinkling sound like dull glass merged with bamboo.

I also caught enough material to make the third CD in my Morphium series, Atoll.

I took some time to record some impulse responses inside the Pisonia forest – if that means nothing to you, stay tuned. Next post will be an explanation of a truly amazing invention of contemporary audio technology – a technique that allows us to make digital ‘maps’ of acoustic spaces.

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