Ever since the idea of autonomous machines entered our consciousness, interacting with a real humanoid robot– let alone the best one– was always on anyone’s ultimate wish list.
And rightly so– who wouldn’t want to engage with a smart machine the way you normally do with a human; an inorganic object that unlike other tools before, can mimic the actions of humans, or display abilities tantamount to a kind of intelligence? At least, if not for the purpose of interaction, to be flexible enough to help serve as a tool in a way no other machine had done before.
Since the ancient Greeks, people have wanted machines to do their bidding, or interact with like you would another person without the baggage that people bring. Today, we’ve come the closest to that than at any time in history.
While the prospects of large automatons can seem scary at first, realizing the usefulness of such a concept can quickly diminish all doubt. And what better way to do that than create such a real, autonomous and interactive machine than one that is small. The Nao is one such robot.
The NAO is a programmable, animated, humanoid robot from Softbank Robotics of Japan (formerly French Aldebaran Robotics) is a fully autonomous companion geared towards education, research, companies, and hobbyists.
It interacts with people in one of the smoothest, most comprehensive way as current technology can provide. It’s expensive, the way you’d expect a modern, higher-end robot to be. But the secret is like its computer predecessors: As good and dexterous as the hardware can be, the real action is in software, the advanced algorithms that operate inside.
It has similar features as the most advanced robots on our list or elsewhere, and even more tricks up its sleeves as well, making it arguably among the most advanced piece of robotics consumers or hobbyists can get their hands on.
Its price tag of more than $8,000 (and that is already after a price drop) reflects this as well, however, and it may turn a lot of people off, seeing as how most other humanoid home bots achieve more or less 80% of its functions at about 10% of the cost.
But the NAO’s market is different, and these “little” extra features actually go a long way. The fact that it is fully autonomous for example, is more than a big deal because you can leave it alone or give it orders and it will follow them in a way other units would be hard pressed to do.
It truly is a marvel of advanced robotics. Its manufacturer, Aldebaran was acquired by Softbank and it now shares the same family as the Pepper business bot and the larger, more human-sized android Romeo.
It is highly flexible not only in its hardware abilities but software as well, with its AI and operating system, NAOqi, among the most impressive available in the market, and its extensibility by way of being able to connect with other AI platforms, like IBM’s Watson for example (the same Watson that beat the world champions in the spoken game of Jeopardy in what seems like– in technology terms– eons ago), and extend its already uncanny array of conversational calisthenics.
Best of all, it has an ability to learn, literally. There are videos that show it making mental calculations and determining a conclusion based on inference and inductive reasoning. (Naturally, these are far from human-level reasoning abilities but a distant breakaway from its peers.)
And just when you thought that was impressive enough, it has skills in different aspects of the human sphere like entertainment, education and more. And it is constantly updated at its core level and other programmable “skills” by some of the most advanced researchers in the world today. Something you can be sure about knowing it has Softbank as its parent now.
Review & Rating
- Advanced robotics, articulate and accurate (hardware)
- Highly functioning AI
- Smart, and designed to learn, including nuanced abilities
- Multitalented, multifunctional - It can play football, play music and musical instruments, host, or (depending on AI platform used) strike up a conversation
- Programmable, with various software platforms, Monitor and software development kit (SDK)
- Highly capitalized company behind it
- Large, expert community
- Extensible, expandable
- Connectivity -- able to work with different AI platforms like IBM's Watson
- Speaks and understands multiple languages
- Connectible and steerable (controls) locally or remotely from any connected computer
- High freedom of movement
- Natural, smooth movement and articulation
- Extensive training materials adapted to your level of interest, needs and skils; with formal curricula available as well (for teachers, by teachers)
- Multiple applications in business (including concierge and visitor interaction, among others), research, entertainment, science, technology, and many others
- Not easily or readily available in regular stores
One of the oldest, most advanced small humanoid robots there is. With a hefty price tag to match.
Nao has the widest range of abilities and does them with the smooth suave flow befitting its makers and the company of partners it keeps, from serious hobbyists to seasoned researchers to industry professionals to academia to enterprise players. It seems the heavy-hitters are working on Nao a lot and each iteration contributes to its overall development and forward advance.
Nao has been the subject of much attention because it continues to display some of the most impressive feats a small robot (and a humanoid one at that) can do, and its use with a range of advanced artificial intelligence agents and platforms (including, but not limited to, IBM's Watson) perfects its already impressive hardware with the smarts befitting its community's expectations.
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- CPU : Intel
- Built-in OS : NAOqi 2.0 (Linux-based)
- Compatible OS : Windows, Mac OS, Linux
- Camera : Two HD cameras
- Sound (input) : Four microphones,
- Sound (output) : Stereo speakers
- Height : 58 centimetres (23 in)
- Weight : 4.3 kilograms (9.5 lb)
- Power supply : Lithium battery providing 48.6 Wh
- Autonomy : 90 minutes (active use)
- Degrees of freedom : 25
- Programming languages : C++, Python, Java, MATLAB, Urbi, C, .Net
- Sensors : Sonar rangefinder, two infrared emitters and receivers, inertial board, nine tactile sensors, eight pressure sensors
- Connectivity : Ethernet, Wi-Fior
[Review Box] (Plugin; Editor’s Rating, Spec Overview)
(Details link to longform product pages)
Any modern intelligent machine these days need several basic, expected building blocks. This includes transportability, speech recognition and synthesis (for voice commands or conversationality), voice responses, object recognition, and object mapping.
The NAO humanoid, programmable, robot has all of these but achieves them in a refined and controlled way superior to its brethren in the world of consumer-oriented intelligent machines. It is adaptable, autonomous, and has a number of innovations of its own, though it’s been years since its debut and many manufacturers have since emulated plenty of them. This includes easy connectivity to AI platforms (like IBM’s Watson, among others) to give it smarts and conversation that are a level beyond the norm; the ability to be a companion at work or yoga sessions; dancing; playing music, sometimes even literally with its own instruments, and many more.
This includes a holistic approach to robotics education, articulation, and programmability with different software tools and architectural foundations from which developers can leverage their unit, depending on your expertise or inclination.
It is primarily a functional AI unit with a range of “talents” in the form factor of a humanoid bot, with features that allow it to analyze and adapt to its environment. Its internal unit, for example, enables it to maintain its balance, and therefore allow for a fluid movement and range of activity smoothly, and “know” whether it is standing up, sitting, lying down, or if it had fallen down.
It can see, hear and speak. With multiple directional microphones and loudspeakers interacts with humans in a natural way, even if (to a point) there is noise in the background such as someone on the phone or if the music or television is playing. In fact, it is equipped with two high-resolution cameras that view its environment in high resolution, allowing him to recognize shapes and perform object recognition to a high degree. It will recognize faces as well as objects.
It can access the Internet autonomously as well, with a range of modes available such as Wifi or Ethernet.
Then it can “feel.” It knows when you touch it in its head, hands or feet, for example, and respond accordingly, though the use of multiple sensors throughout its body and head.
It even comes with an extensive library and resources for training, skills development, and deep curricula.
It is constantly being extended by its community inventing new forms of use constantly.
The Good: What We Like
It’s the most advanced robot available for consumers in the market.
On top of having the characteristics of other robotic units in the marketplace, it has an advanced and unique constitution that is all its own.
It is autonomous. It is constantly updated, is backed by a company as well as a community with some of the best researchers and minds in the world.
Though its hardware and articulate limbs are a sight to behold, most of its really impressive features are in its artificial intelligence (AI) — software — not just in its ability to connect with different platforms, but its inherent core and embedded programmable operating system.
Because most of its current set of users are hobbyists, educators, researchers, engineers, enthusiasts and professionals, the level of development as well as improvement continues to be high and achieving results on a playing field of its own.
All in one package with multiple senses for natural interaction.
The Bad: What We Don’t Like
The only “bad” thing about this unit can be summed up in one word: price.
Unless you’re an organizational buyer, researcher, educator, professional purchasing this for largely work-related reasons, or a hobbyist, you’ll find alternatives elsewhere for a fraction of the cost and “almost” as good, or at least gets your goals and intended purpose fulfilled just as well, or close to it.
Worth the Price in Gold and Silicon
The NAO is an impressive landmark of technology available to the public (if they can afford it).
It seems that the only downside to this continually improved marvel is its price tag. At over $8,000, it may seem to deflate all the amazing features and abilities this otherwise impressive piece of robotic technology provides.
So it enforces both sides of the extremes:
If you are a research, educational, organizational or business entity, or a serious hobbyist that has the extra money to throw at the state-of-the-art — even if it’s more or less about a quarter better than bots available at a tenth of the price — then, by all means, it’s worth it.
However, if you’re on the other side of the spectrum and do not (or cannot) see any justification for spending more than $1,000 at this point — particularly the rapid improvements and obsolescence in an accelerating technology landscape today — then there is also absolutely no need to get one when a plethora of advanced products that get a majority of its abilities are also available everywhere.
Either way, depending on your views on the accelerating pace of advances and improvement in robotics and AI technology (particularly if you’re of the temperament that imagines Skynet and terminators at these discussions the way ignorant journalists and pundits are wont to do at almost every article or tweet), if you see robotics and AI to be a generally positive force in the way it will eventually help society and in solving some of the hardest problems in life and the world, the future looks very bright.
If the likes of NAO are anything to come by, it is evidence and affirmation that such a pronouncement is real. And since any of its advances over time find their way to trickle down into other products, including humanoid companion robots from other manufacturers, the future looking bright is also going to clearly be well distributed as well.
Where to Buy a NAO Robot
You can’t buy the Nao personally and directly just yet, but if you’re a serious hobbyist or user, you can establish yourself personally, work with an academic or research institution, or acquaint yourself with someone who is, as well as working with an institution that is.
Or you can simply request for more information and persuade the representatives there and talk to the people of Softbank Robotics.
Comparison: Humanoid Robots
Here’s a comparison of some of the small humanoid robots available at large. We notice that depending on the criteria (whether it’s abilities, price, and so on), no single robot really is better than the others.
It’s important to remember that they serve different target audiences and it’s almost like comparing apples to oranges (even though they’re all bipedal, humanoid machines) because while will be very expensive with all the features, while another is intended for the hobbyist and therefore sport its own features optimal for that target market, and so on.
So with that caveat, below is a set of comparison boxes that helps show you the differences.
At first blush, the Nao robot seems like a grandfather in any list because it has been around the longest. But this actually only plays to its strengths even more, particularly because it is not intended for casual use but for education, research, and enterprise applications.
It isn’t available for direct purchase for personal use by the public, but many have worked their way around acquiring one through organizational means, identities and other methods. Rightly so, given that it’s the most expensive robot for its size. But rightly so, as well.
Nao has the most degrees of freedom and articulation as any robot, and a large community of serious technical chops (engineering, robotics research, academia, corporate sponsors, and many others). But one of its most notable feature isn’t something you readily see it do, it is about its very essence.<
That’s because its very capable hardware (refined over the years) can be paired with various artificial intelligence methods and platforms that it has become one of the most advanced interactive robots with autonomy anywhere.
It connects seamlessly with IBM’s vaunted Watson AI for example, and converses with users at a high level while displaying plenty of more developed artificial intelligence functions such as recognising its own environment and describing it, facial recognition as well as object recognition (cars, items) to a very high degree of accuracy, and many more. It even showed primitive signs of self-awareness when it inferred an answer to a question without being given direct clues to them (and this was years ago).
Its research and improvement continue unabated, particularly now that Aldebaran, the company behind it, was acquired by Japan’s Softbank, who is dedicated to robotic research like moths to a flame, growing Nao’s siblings to now include Pepper and the larger, humanoid Romeo.
In fact, there is more to that, because although there is a large amount of corporate backing going into its improvement, a lot of its amazing feats come out of labs, university, and individual enthusiasts tinkering away on their own to provide not just skills but continued improvement to its core system, giving us optimism that this grandfather of robots not only is aging well but getting better and seemingly younger than its peers.
Nao is listed in our roundup of the finest home robots. Check it out here »