They are the stuff of sci-fi nightmares – villainous machines working to enslave mankind in a dystopian future.
But Edinburgh scientists behind a new breed of caring super-robots promise they will remain light years away from HAL – the sinister computer in Stanley Kubrick’s cult movie 2001 A Space Odyssey – and say they could one day fix your love life.
Experts from Heriot-Watt University are pioneering the creation of artificial personalities capable of conversing and interacting just like humans.
The research echoes new Hollywood rom-com Her – starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson – in which a lonely writer falls for a talking computer programme.
Professor Oliver Lemon of Heriot Watt’s Interaction Lab, who is helping develop the next generation of intelligent robots and computer applications, said a romantic attachment between man and machine was within the bounds of possibility.
He said: “The concept of the knowing machine is set within popular culture, but rather than visions of HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey, the applications we are developing concentrate on keeping humans at the centre of interactions.
“There have been projects to try and create companions, where the idea is that you build up a long-term relationship with a piece of artificial intelligence technology – I’d say it’s not impossible that you could create a kind of artificial personality that people would develop feelings for.”
Prof Lemon said he and his team were working on several European Community-funded research projects which all include interactivity and conversational operation.
Among them is a robot bartender called JAMES, which uses physical, visual, and spoken cues to recognise customers, figure out who needs attention and then serve them.
“This technology has been made possible through the development of machine learning with large amounts of data,” said the professor.
“Trying to build human-like capabilities for conversational interaction is an incredibly challenging problem, because it requires combining information from speech, vision, gestures, and facial expressions, as well as spatial location and movement.
“New technologies are giving us the potential to access huge volumes of data to create machines that can learn from their interactions with humans.”
Relationship experts in the Capital said they were “open-minded” about the idea of love between man and computer, although sex therapist Dr Lyndsey Myskow said: “I don’t see machines replacing humans just yet.”