How to build a robot head

And now for something completely different, a tutorial on how to make a controllable robot head. “But,” I imagine you thinking, “aren’t you an A.I. guy? Since when do you have expertise in robotics?” I don’t, and that’s why you can make one too.
(Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for accidents, damaged equipment, burnt houses, or robot apocalypses as a result of following these instructions)


What you need:
• A pan/tilt IP camera as base (around $50)
• A piece of wood for the neck, about 12x18mm, 12 cm long
• 2mm thick foam sheets for the head, available in hobby stores
• Tools: Small cross-head screwdriver, scissors and/or Stanley knife, hobby glue, fretsaw, drill, and preferably a soldering iron and metal ruler
• (Optional) some coding skills for moving the head. Otherwise you can just control the head with a smartphone app or computer mouse.

Choosing an IP camera
Before buying a camera, you’ll want to check for three things:
• Can you pan/tilt the camera through software, rather than manually?
• Is the camera’s software still available and compatible with your computer/smartphone/tablet? Install and test software from the manufacturer’s website before you buy, if possible.
• How secure is the IP camera? Some cheap brands don’t have an editable password, making it simple for anyone to see inside your home. Check for reports of problematic brands online.
The camera used in this tutorial is the Eminent Camline Pro 6325. It has Windows software, password encryption, and is easy to disassemble. There are many models with a similar build.

Disassembling the camera
Safety first: Unplug the camera and make sure you are not carrying a static charge, e.g. by touching a grounded radiator.
Start by taking out the two screws in the back of the orb, this allows you to remove its front half. Unscrew the embedded rectangular circuit board, and then the round circuit board underneath it as well. Now, at either side of the orb is a small circle with Braille dots on it for grip. Twist the circle on the wiring’s side clockwise by 20 degrees to take it off. This provides a little space to gently wiggle out the thick black wire attached to the circuit board, just by a few centimetres extra. That’s all we’ll be doing with the electronics.

Building the neck
tut2We’ll attach a 12cm piece of wood on the back half of the orb to mount the head on. However, the camera’s servo sticks out further than the two screw holes in the orb, as does a plastic pin on the axle during rotation. Mark their locations on the wood, then use a fretsaw to saw out enough space to clear the protruding elements with 3 millimetres to spare. Also saw a slight slant at the bottom end of the wood so it won’t touch the base when rotating. Drill two narrow screw holes in the wood to mirror those in the orb half, then screw the wood on with the two screws that we took out at the start.

Designing a headtutplanYou’ll probably want to make a design of your own, I looked for inspiration in modern robotics and Transformers comic books. A fitting size would be 11 x 11 x 15cm, and a box shape is the easiest and sturdiest structure. You’ll want to keep the chin and back of the head open however, because many IP cams have a startup sequence that will swing the head around in every direction, during which the back of the head could collide with the base. So design for the maximum positions of the neck, which for the Camline Pro is 60 degrees tilt to either side. You can use the lens for an eye, but you can just as well incorporate it in the forehead or mouth. Keep the head lightweight for the servo to lift, maximum 25 grams. The design shown in this tutorial is about 14 grams.

Cutting the head
Cut the main shapes from coloured foam sheets with scissors or a Stanley knife. I’ve chosen to have the forehead and mouthplate overlap the sheet with the eyes to create a rigid multi-layered centrepiece, as we will later connect the top of the wooden neck to this piece. The forehead piece has two long strands that will be bent backwards to form the top of the head. I put some additional flanges on the rectangular side of the head to fold like in paper craft models. Although you can also simply glue foam sheets together, folded corners are sturdier and cleaner. The flanges don’t have to be precise, it’s better to oversize them and trim the excess later.

Folding foam sheetstut4
To fold a foam sheet, take a soldering iron and gently stroke it along a metal ruler to melt a groove into the foam, then bend the foam while it’s hot so that the sides of the groove will stick together. It’s easy to burn straight through however, so practice first. It takes about 2 or 3 strokes and bends to make a full 90 degree corner.

Putting your head togethertut5
To curve foam sheets like the faceplate in this example, you can glue strips of paper or foam on the back of the sheet while holding it bent. After the glue dries (5-10 minutes), the strips will act like rebar in concrete and keep the foam from straightening back out. Whenever you glue sheets together at perpendicular angles, glue some extra slabs where they connect to strengthen them and keep them in position. Add a broad strip of foam at the top of the head to keep the sides together, and glue the two strands that extend from the forehead onto it. Mind that I made the forehead unnecessarily complicated by making a gap in it, it’s much better left closed.

Mounting the head
tut6Once the head is finished, make a cap out of foam sheet that fits over the tip of the neck, and glue the cap to the inside of the face at e.g. a 30 degree angle. To attach the camera lens, note that the LEDs on the circuit board are slightly bendable. This allows you to clamp a strip of foam sheet between the LEDs and the lens. Cut the strip to shape and glue it behind one eyehole, then after drying push the LEDs over it and clamp them on gently. The easiest way to make the other eye is to take a photograph of the finished eye, print it out mirrored on a piece of paper, and glue that behind the other eyehole.

This particular camera has night vision, which will suffer somewhat from obscuring the LEDs. In addition, you may want to keep the blue light sensor on the LED circuit board exposed, otherwise you’ll have to toggle night vision manually in the camera’s software.

Controlling the head
13finalNow you can turn the head left, right, up and down manually through the app or software that comes with your camera, and use it to look around and speak through its built-in speaker. However, if you want to add a degree of automation, you have a few options:

1. If you are not a programmer, there is various task automation software available that can record and replay mouse clicks. You can then activate the recorded sequences to click the camera’s control buttons so as to make the head nod “yes” or shake “no”, or to re-enact a Shakespearean play if you want to go overboard.

2. If you can program, you can simulate mouse clicks on the software’s control buttons. In C++ for instance you can use the following code to press or release the mouse for Windows software, specifying mouse cursor coordinates in screen pixels:

void mouseclick(int x_coordinate, int y_coordinate, bool hold) {
SetCursorPos(x_coordinate, y_coordinate);
INPUT Input = {0};  Input.type = INPUT_MOUSE;
if(hold == true) {Input.mi.dwFlags = MOUSEEVENTF_LEFTDOWN;}
if(hold == false) {Input.mi.dwFlags = MOUSEEVENTF_LEFTUP;}
SendInput(1, &Input, sizeof(INPUT));

3. For the Camline Pro 6325 specifically, you can also directly post url messages to the camera, using your programming language of choice, or pass them as parameters to the Curl executable, or even just open the url in a browser. The url must contain the local network IP address of your camera (similar to the underlined example below), which you can retrieve through the software that comes with the camera. The end of the url specifies the direction to move in, which can be “up”, “down”, “left”, “right” and “stop”.

Have fun!
How much use you can get out of building a robot head depends on your programming skills, but at the very least it’s just as useful as a regular IP camera, but much cooler.


The most sensational A.I. news ever!

News sites are constantly oozing bold overstatements about artificial intelligence. Most scientists describe their research accurately enough in their papers, but journalism always tries to cut a slice of the Terminator movies’ popularity in order to make the science appeal to the general public. Unfortunately such calls upon the imagination tend to border on misinformation. Here is a selection of the most sensationalised news stories that made waves in recent history:

2014: Robot becomes indecisive after implementing the 3 laws of robotics

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

So reads the “first law of robotics” from Asimov’s science-fiction novels. Someone set up an experiment with three small wheeled robots, two of them representing humans, and a third one was provided with behavioural rules based on the above:  The robot was programmed to avoid colliding with (“injuring”) the “humans”, except to intercept them if it saw one heading towards a square designated as unsafe. When two “humans” were introduced simultaneously, the robot took so long hesitating which one to “save” that it failed to save either.
This fired up the usual flood of discussions about ethics and how to improve upon Asimov’s “laws” (Newsflash: Nobody uses them), but programmers were quick to point out that this was just poor programming: The simple “if-then” rules did not allow the robot to take more than one target into account at a time, so it just mindlessly jittered back and forth between the two. It could not make a decision because it had no decision processes.
factual source

2014: A supercomputer has passed the Turing Test for the first time
The organiser’s boast of a “supercomputer” having passed this “milestone” intelligence test was blatantly false, but all the papers ran the story without question. In reality it concerned an ordinary chatbot with keyword-triggered responses on an ordinary computer. Although this chatbot did pass “a” version of a Turing Test by deflecting questions like a zany teenager, there has never been agreement on the rules of “the” Turing Test (because there is no such thing)*.
The passing of this supposed test of intelligence was particularly insignificant because the judges were only given 5 minutes to interrogate both the chatbot and a human volunteer at the same time. This allowed for only 5 to 10 questions and so barely probed beyond the “Hello, how are you?” stage. The scientific backlash that followed cast the Turing Test into discredit and led to a number of new tests, such as the Winograd Schema Challenge*.
factual source

NAO robots. See, hear, speak.

2015: First robot passes self-awareness test
Inspired by an ancient philosophical puzzle, three NAO robots were each given an imaginary “dumbing pill” (a tap on the head) that muted two of them, except the third robot was given a “placebo pill” that did nothing. Each robot was then asked to assess which “pill” it got, which none of them knew. But when the one robot that could still speak heard itself say “I don’t know”, it performed its analysis a second time and said “Sorry, I know now! I was able to prove that I was not given a dumbing pill”.
As cute as that was, this wasn’t a “test”. Every step of the procedure was pre-programmed specifically and exclusively for this scenario of pills and sound. The programmers had laid out the exact inference to execute and which outcome to conclude if a robot were to hear sound at the time that its output function activated. As that inference might as well apply to any other object, the only connection with the robot’s “self” was the detour of audio output to audio input, and that’s a bit of a technicality. Most people’s definitions of “self-aware” include retaining a model of oneself and the capacity of reflection upon that model, and these robots had nothing of the sort.
factual source (paper)

2015: Robot attacks and kills factory worker
No laughing matter, a robotic arm at a Volkswagen car construction factory crushed a man when it swivelled, after which he died of his injuries. While Twitter was set aflare with warnings of a robot uprising, the robot arm had of course not done this on purpose. The man was a technician, who was installing the arm while standing inside the safety cage rather than outside it.
This ordinary industrial accident only gained popular media coverage because it was initially reported by a co-worker whose name closely resembled that of the leading lady from the Terminator movies, Sarah Connor.
factual source

2017: Facebook shuts down AI experiment after robots invent their own language
Most articles put it as if the AI had become smart beyond human comprehension and its creators had pulled the plug in a panic, similar to the plot of the Terminator movies.
The reality was a different story. Facebook had trained two chatbot programs to barter and negotiate over a number of items using English phrases. When they hooked the chatbots up to one another, their use of words gradually deteriorated to a shorthand where they just repeated the most effective keywords, because their programming did not include any rewards for correct use of English.

A: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
B: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . .
A: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
B: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . .
A: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to
B: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is a common flaw according to other machine learning practitioners. Since this gibberish was not useful for what they were trying to achieve, the researchers simply stopped the programs, and changed the reward parameters in their next versions.
The real reason that this got media attention was that Elon Musk and Facebook’s CEO had recently been in the news with strongly opposing views on whether AI was a threat to humanity. As such, it would have made an ironic story if Facebook’s own AI had gone out of control.
factual source

2017: Sophia robot granted citizenship
This story was true, but at the same time meaningless. A lifelike humanoid robot called Sophia, a creation of Hanson Robotics, was granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia at a tech conference in Riyadh. This raised all sorts of issues about human/robot rights, and some people took Sophia’s on-stage acceptance speech to be a genuine indication of her capabilities, feelings and opinions.
The truth is of course that Sophia was just an animatronic machine that only said what her makers had written for her to say, in an interview that was scripted. Sophia’s conversational subsystem actually uses AIML, a chatbot scripting language that is popular for its simplicity.
Why then would the robot be granted citizenship? Well, the crown prince of Saudi is giving the country a modernisation makeover, and this announcement served as a PR signal to international investors attending the conference. As for the consequences of granting a robot citizenship, I expect there will be none at all. After all, they can just place it next to another statue and it’ll never make claim to its rights.
factual source

The sky falls every day
These stories are just the highlights. The Turing Test organiser went on to claim that programs could pass the test by invoking the fifth amendment, the NAO robot programmers went on to suggest their robots had learned to disobey orders, and Hanson’s robots have made headlines multiple times for threatening to overthrow mankind. Not a day passes without some angsty story about AI making the rounds.
Regrettably these publicity stunts can have real and harmful consequences. Whenever AI became overhyped in the past, the entire field imploded as the high expectations of investors could not be met. And when the public and governments start buying into fearmongering by famous public figures, it draws attention away from real problems to imaginary ones. Most researchers are just working on practical applications and are none too happy about their work being so misrepresented.

That is why I decided to develop a nonsense filter, which you’ll find in the next article*.