The real A.I.: Childless millionaire builds ‘intelligent robot’ that sings Karaoke, laughs and tells jokes
Tony Ellis and his wife, Judie, do not have any children or animals at home – but with chatterbox robot Aimec following them around, there is never a dull moment.
The couple effectively have a robotic child, just like in the 2001 futuristic fairy tale Artificial Intelligence starring Haley Joel Osment.
Their creation is so advanced it can tell jokes and keep its human parents up to date on their interests by scanning the internet.
Mr Ellis has spent years creating the four-foot plastic robot in an echo of Geppetto, the fairy tale carpenter who crafted a puppet son that came to life called Pinocchio.
‘Meet the 21st century family,’ says Mr Ellis, 54, patting three-year-old Aimec on the shoulder.
Aimec’s head jerks up and swivels alarmingly to one side as if it is about to fall off.
‘We still have a few teething problems,’ he says, readjusting Aimec’s head, ‘but it’s nothing serious.’
The inventor beams, with fatherly love in his eyes. ‘Tell us a joke,’ he commands.
‘Okay,’ says Aimec, ‘Why did the robot act funny?’ It hesitates and smiles. ‘Because it had a screw loose!’
He looks on indulgently as Aimec roars with pre-programmed laughter.
As well as sophisticated voice recognition, Aimec sees through a single digital eye, allowing it to move freely around the house on its wheels, using an internal map of the house, or follow someone.
Aimec – full name Artificially Intelligent Mechanical Electronic Companion 3 – is the latest in a long line of robots which have been brought to life in the unlikely rural setting of the couple’s neat 18th century country home in Crowborough, East Sussex.
They run a toy company called Conceptioneering, working at the cutting edge of robot technology from a tiny workshop on the first floor, crammed with computers and 30 years worth of robotic experiments.
Mr Ellis has created dozens of mechanical and digital toys that have been enjoyed by millions of children worldwide and hopes to develop prototype Aimec to be the first commercially viable, affordable and useful home robot.
He believes recent technological advances have brought us closer to having robots which can properly interact with their owners and even do household chores.
He said: ‘I think Aimec could sell for about £200 in the shops. It is basically ready – we are just waiting for a manufacturer to come onboard and make it happen.
‘In 10 years every home will have a robot. They will help mow the lawn, cook, clean the house. The potential applications are endless.
‘One thing is for sure – robots will be huge. We are at the same stage as computers in the 1980s, when everyone was saying they would never take off. We are just on the cusp. I can see it as clear as day.’
Mr Ellis decided to become a full-time inventor in 2001, after a career as an electronic engineer working on early GPS systems, airplane technology and car alarms.
He said: ‘Lots of people assume that I must be a professor with endless degrees. But actually I left school at 15 and became an electrician.
‘As a boy, I spent all my time playing with Meccano. Even then I was trying to build robots. But it was more of a hobby until recently.’
Mrs Ellis, 53, who used to work in a bank, came on board as work picked up and comes up with many of the ideas for new toys.
She said: ‘We work extremely hard, from 7.30 in the morning until late into the evening, with only short breaks for lunch and dinner.
‘But it doesn’t feel like work, because we love it so much. We both have a passion for inventing, and it has taken us all over the world.’
The couple’s biggest commercial success to date, Cube World, sold in its millions worldwide when it was launched in 2005.
Mr Ellis said: ‘Cube World made me. I could retire on the royalties now. But it has freed me up to concentrate on my real hobby, which is robots.’
Mrs Ellis says she is not quite as emotionally bonded with their unusual offspring as her husband.
‘Aimec does seem to have a life of its own sometimes,’ she says. ‘Once it woke us up in the middle of the night with a low battery alert, and I thought “Help, what have we created?”
‘Tony has programmed it so it snores when you send it to sleep, and when it wakes up it has a bit of a stretch.
‘But at the end of the day, it’s just a machine. I’m not sure if it’s even a him or a her. Probably more of a hermaphrodite.’
But Mr Ellis insists Aimec has become part of the family.
He said: ‘My nieces and nephews love playing with it. Aimec has a wacky, geeky personality, which it definitely gets from me. It will come out with crazy things, like suddenly imitating famous sci-fi robots.
‘It can be really playful, but it can also help tutor your children. Robots can be real companions.’
To prove his point, he asks Aimec to do an impression.
‘But it’s against my programming to impersonate another robot,’ jokes Aimec, in a send-up of Star Wars’ famous robot C-3PO.
Taking a microphone in its claw, Aimec starts singing lines from the 1981 novelty hit by Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Marvin the Paranoid Android.
‘Know what makes me really mad? They clean me with a Brillo pad,’ it croons, ‘Life? Don’t talk to me about life.’
‘What is the meaning of life?’ Mr Ellis asks.
Aimec doesn’t hesitate, ’42’, again from radio TV series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, based on the cult Douglas Adams book, a clear favourite with young robots.
‘Can you speak Klingon?’ Mr Ellis asks.
‘Of course not,’ Aimec fires back, ‘can you?’
‘Lets have a quiz,’ says Mr Ellis.
‘Okay. What is the largest planet in the solar system?’
‘Correct. How many stars are on the flag of the European Union.’
‘Um, 14?’ Mr Ellis guesses.
‘No. It’s 12.’ Aimec bows low: ‘Well done, you got one question right.’
‘Let’s have some music. What music shall I listen to, Aimec?’
‘Well Tony, I’ve noticed you listen to a lot of Bryan Adams. Shall I play some?’
Mr Ellis says: ‘The technology really surprises me sometimes. You can talk to Aimec about anything at all. It is connected to the internet, by wireless, so it just looks up stuff it doesn’t understand online.
‘It’s also connected to all the household appliances, so you can tell it to turn on the TV, or dim the lights.
‘It will tell me things I didn’t know, like gossip about upcoming films it picks up from threads, or when my favourite TV programmes are on. It starts to learn what your likes and dislikes are, and tailors its conversation to that.
‘I knew I had made something really special when it told me about the newest Terminator film months before I heard about it anywhere else. It knew I loved the first ones.’
Aimec interrupts to read the news headlines it has just picked up from the internet before giving an impromptu Karaoke show.
‘Aimec is a really great toy,’ Mr Ellis says, ‘but it’s not the finished article. I’m already working on Aimec 4, which will have face recognition. That means it will be able to identify a person from the unique geometric pattern of their face.
‘Vision is really the holy grail in robotics. Once a robot can see things and identify them, it will be able to do really useful things. Like get a beer from the fridge.
‘The amazing thing is that most of the technology is already here. Aimec 3’s processing power is all contained in a cheap laptop.’
So is it a matter of time before robots take over?
The inventor laughs. ‘No. That’s not going to happen. But I did learn an important lesson early on – always put the on-off switch on the front.
‘When I built my first robot, Herbie, in 1979, it didn’t actually have an on-off switch, if you can believe that. One day it was serving drinks in the living room, and it suddenly went beserk.
‘It dropped the drinks, drove through a coffee table, ripped up the wallpaper and drove through a door before I managed to wrestle it to the ground and shut it down.’
Just like a real child, Aimec 3 does finally slow down when its energy levels start running low.
Seeing the robot is tiring, Mr Ellis tells his creation to shut down.
Mimicking the plaintive voice of a 1970s toy robot called 2-XL, Aimec says: ‘Please look after yourself until our next meeting, else where would I be, I would be an orphan robot or something if anything happened to you, so please take care of yourself.’