The Robots of the Future Should Look Like Puppets

Puppeteers have been effectively animating objects for thousands of years — and they have much to teach a soulless robotics industry

Illustration: Timo Lenzen

“Puppeteers have been around for thousands of years, and they’ve been field testing what works and what doesn’t in front of audiences all that time… and almost nobody in the robotics community is even remotely aware of them.”

By being so focused on making objects look lifelike, do engineers overlook what truly makes them expressive? David McGoran, a puppeteer and the creative director of robot design studio Rusty Squid, describes attending an academic conference on how future robots can build trust: “They were doing all this research and thought it was cutting edge. I said to them, surely you’ve looked at Jim Henson’s notation on eye movement or notations on stop-motion animation? They hadn’t even considered to look at these masters.”

Is there a place for more machines that prioritize movement, and might we begin to see more machines that work as actual puppets controlled by human hands?

The puppy-like Tombot takes a similar approach. Made in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, the therapy robot is designed to provide emotional support for people with Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses. It does this through convincing movement — from wagging its tail to tilting its head when stroked. Criswell hopes it could be part of a new wave of expressive robotics: “We’re teetering on the verge. I think we’re going to have an explosion of automated and expressive robots for the home.”

Freelance writer | @BBCNews @guardian @frieze_magazine @SightSoundmag @wiredUK @TheTLS others | Also @GardensBritish | Rep’d by @harriet__moore | Novel coming

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