With a wide base that tapers and expands to a fat midsection, upon which is perched a tiny head, the Russian robot named Promobot IR77 is no C-3PO. It evokes nothing so much as an artificially intelligent snowman, down to the machine’s white-as-fresh-powder paint job.
Like another famous snowman and itinerant — Frosty — the robot seems to have acquired a taste for skipping town, too.
On June 16 the robot fled its creators, as The Washington Post reported. The story goes that an engineer working at Promobot Laboratories, in the Russian city of Perm, had left a gate open. Out trundled Promobot, traveling some 150 feet into the city before running out of juice. There it sat, batteries mostly dead, in the middle of a Perm street for 40 minutes, slowing cars to a halt and puzzling traffic cops.
The prototype robot is designed for easy human interaction, with speech-recognition software, a prominent chest display and a program developed to remember specific faces. Promobot says its creation — as a “promotional robot” — would be able to perform tasks like a concierge or visitor guide. It is a member of a growing field of (often cute, often painted white) robots developed for interacting with citizens in public or in homes.
Promobot Labs is also testing the machine’s ability to avoid obstacles. The autonomous avoidance, it seems, is what gave Promobot IR77 its wanderlust. According to The Post’s previous report, Promobot co-founder Oleg Kivokurtsev said that when the machine escaped June 16, “the robot was learning automatic movement algorithms on the testing ground.”
To some critics, the story — and the accompanying photos on Promobot’s blog — seemed a little too crisp to not be a promotional stunt. As the Russian engineers wrote on Facebook at the beginning of June, they plan to compete at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in September. Was the great escape a ploy to drum up some excitement before entering a crowded startup field?
But then Promobot gave its creators the slip again. And now, its creators say, the machine might not make it to September, let alone Christmas.
Despite several rewrites of Promobot’s artificial intelligence, the robot continued to move toward exits. “We have changed the AI system twice,” Kivokurtsev told the Mirror. “So now I think we might have to dismantle it.”
Although there are other versions in development, this malfunctioning Promobot’s days look numbered. Unless, however, its fans have any sway. Maxim reports that the Promobot YouTube comment sections are filling up with supporters asking the Russian roboticists to keep the wandering robot out of the junk heap.