Computing: Robotic delivery from a former soap star

 

Scientists at Cambridge University have developed a digital robot capable of expressing speech and emotions with the unlikely help of an actor best known for her role in the TV soap Hollyoaks.

Zoe exists only in a computer screen and makes Siri, Apple’s talking bot for iPhones, seem rather lacking in (artificial) intelligence by comparison. She, too, turns words into speech but also mouths them and conveys emotion with changes in tone and facial expression. Professor Roberto Cipolla, who leads the Zoe project at Cambridge’s Department of Engineering in partnership with the Toshiba Research Laboratory, has called her the “interface of the future”.

Videos show Zoe as a slightly creepy disembodied head, and while her voice remains fairly, well, robotic (Cipolla is working on that) it is startling to see pixels arranged in such expressive, human form. Zoe Lister, formerly known as Zoe Carpenter in Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, must take some of the credit. She sat for hours in a lab, talking and gurning for cameras set up to capture her facial movements. But to what end?

Voice command is already threatening to shift keyboards and mice as our input devices of choice. Zoe’s creators see great potential in adding a face. Your friends could receive messages spoken by a version of your face, digital carers could keep patients company or call centre workers could come across as more human. The scientists have also raised the prospect of virtual actors, something the real Zoe may yet regret.

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