Tony Ellis invented the Altair robot.

ALEXA Meets ALTAIR: A Robotic Conversation

Robots are becoming increasingly commonplace in society. From Alexa to Siri, robotic systems that have the ability to speak to people are infusing themselves into daily life at a rapid pace. The next step in the robotic evolution are “social robots” that aim to work as caregivers. Much like Rosy in the old “Jetson’s” cartoons, social robots are being developed with the intention of having the capability to load dishwashers, vacuum, carry groceries, and more.

British inventor Tony Ellis is one of the forerunners of robotic engineering, and he holds the distinction of having invented one of the most highly advanced social robots in the world, The ALTAIR EZ:1. This robot is four-feet high and is programmed with advanced vision and emotion detection. Hence, the ALTAIR model is rich in sensory ability and dexterous with two its 5 DOF arms. The ALTAIR is a CMS type robot (Collaborative Mobile Social robot). To break it down:

• Collaborative – because ALTAIR can use its dexterity to achieve things while working with humans and other robots

• Mobile – because ALTAIR can move around freely

• Social – because ALTAIR can communicate in a human-like manner and express its emotions

Tony Ellis believes that robot helpers will soon be commonplace.
Tony painstakingly designed the robot to have many functions. [Image by Tony Ellis]

Recently, inventor Tony Ellis decided to pair ALTAIR up with Alexa to see what kind of a conversation they would have…with hilarious results (see the videos linked below). Tony was happy to discuss his incredible robotic creation and his plans for its future as well as his take on the conversation between the robots:

Meagan Meehan (MM): What prompted you to create ALTAIR and what have been some of the most challenging aspects of his design?

Tony Ellis (TE): From being a child, I have always wanted to design and build a useful working robot. The most challenging aspects of design are the vision systems, Ai and producing powerful Smart Servos for the arms, etc.

MM: ALTAIR has a lot of cool functions, including the ability to recognize human emotions and avoiding pitfalls like falling down stairs. What else do you hope to program into him?

TE: The following are functions/skills being developed – Personal Assistant, Media Center, Home Security, Smart Home, Social Interaction, and Companionship.

MM: What gave you the idea to have him speak to Alexa and Hal? How many conversations have they had together?

TE: Hal is only a prop made for the video, but ALTAIR has had quite a few conversations with Alexa, this video shows a number of interactions!

MM: What happened between ALTAIR and Alexa? Did you program them to say this or did you just let the conversation flow?

TE: I programmed ALTAIR to ask Alexa a number of HAL questions that Alexa has answers for. The responses from Alexa were genuine if you played the video near an Echo or Dot they would probably reply with the same answers.

MM: Does ALTAIR function via a chatbot? Has he ever said anything that surprised and amused you?

TE: Yes, there is a Pandorabot link. The funniest response so far was when ALTAIR met Softbanks Pepper robot — ALTAIR raised an arm and asked for a high five to this Pepper raised both arms in a surrender pose and said “don’t shoot me”!

MM: You’ve stated that ALTAIR is intended to be a home helper robot. How close to these being household items do you think we are?

TE: There is still some way to go before ALTAIR is ready to be true home helper robot, but it can already do simple tasks like pour drinks and serve them to people, but more skills need to be developed.

Altair can talk to humans and other robots.
Altair can carry on conversations. [Image by Tony Ellis]

MM: ALTAIR still moves like a robot. Are you ultimately hoping to make him move more like a human so he good vacuum, wash dishes, etc.?

TE: The ALTAIR robot will stay a wheeled machine, there is a few good reasons for this, first the cost of manufacturing a reliable walking robot is huge, second our robots need to map an area and move accurately around the space, this requires accurate odometry which is very difficult to do on a legged robot but easy to do on a wheeled system.

MM: Are you currently working on anything exciting? What’s most exciting to you about the ALTAIR project?

TE: Nearly all my current efforts are working on the ALTAIR robot. I feel I am now getting close to having my dream robot moving around my home and helping me (and others) in daily life.


To check out the “ALTAIR Chronicles” videos–as Tony affectionately refers to them as–see here:

ALTAIR explains what a CMS robot is here.

ALTAIR pours a drink and serves it here.

ALTAIR analyses photos for face recognition and emotional empathy reactions here.

ALTAIR provides a tour of his sensors and what they do here.

ALTAIR and Alexa met HAL9000 here.

ALTAIR shows off his expressive abilities and range of movements here.

To learn more, visit Tony Ellis’ official website, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Google+.

[Featured Image by Tony Ellis]

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