STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Maybe you know about the South by Southwest festival because of the music, but today we're going to talk about the robots, specifically the robot petting zoo - the robot petting zoo. NPR's Laura Sydell tells us that this is where you can get up close and personal with our future overlords.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Robots can be scary. Think dystopian films like "The Terminator" where robots take over. But for some, robots are more like R2-D2, the cute bot from "Star Wars." And the petting zoo was clearly designed to evoke those feelings. Meet BlabDroid.
BLABDROID: I'm going to ask you some questions.
BlabDroid is a small robot, like, less than a foot high with bulldozer wheels, a cardboard body and a smile on its face. BlebDroid is cute, but he asks tough questions.
BLABDROID: Tell me something that you've never told a stranger before.
SYDELL: (Laughter) BlabDroid, something I've never told a stranger before. Well, I'm not going to do it on National Public Radio, I can tell you that.
But I can say, if you weren't listening, I might have answered this robot. And that's what he was designed for, says his maker, Alexander Reben, who's here at the South by Southwest robot petting zoo. Reben was studying robot-human interaction at MIT, and they put a camera on BlabDroid to see how people would respond to it when no one was around.
ALEXANDER REBEN: It asked a guy from the Boston Marathon who wandered into the lab randomly, what do you do here? And he laid down on the floor and started saying, man, you know my flight has been grounded and I really want to go home. There's something here if this guy goes and tells a robot something that he wouldn't tell a person that he just met in that area.
SYDELL: BlabDroid actually has some pretty sophisticated wiring on the inside. But with its cardboard shell with a smile cut into it, BlabDroid looks like he was made in someone's garage. And that's intentional, says Reben.
REBEN: So if the is robot small, tiny, made out of cardboard, you know, man, you can't get it wet. You kind of feel like you can open up to it more because it's very familiar and you feel like you're in control of that situation.
SYDELL: Recently, Reben hooked up with a nonprofit that assembles volunteers the tech industry to be available when disaster hits. They've been talking about deploying BlabDroid to communicate with survivors.
REBEN: When you just got through a very difficult situation where you may not want to talk to the people about what's happening, like, if you have a fun character come in - right? - it's just kind of more playful, right? It's not as serious as coming to a psychologist or something.
SYDELL: BlabDroid isn't the only cute robot here.
TARA REYNEN: So this is Ozobot, one of the smallest programmable robots.
SYDELL: Tara Reynen does sales and education for Ozobot. The robots are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. You can draw lines on a piece of paper, and it will follow the route you set out. If the line is green, Ozobot gets green - red line, Ozobot turns red. If you make a small line of mixed colors, you can give Ozobot directions.
REYNEN: Then you take those colors and you place them in certain sequences and that tells it to perform specific commands. So this right here is a U-turn code. So once it reads it, it will turn around.
SYDELL: Ozobot is designed for children to help learn the basics of programming. Other bots here were less cute. Some were robotic drones to help with rescue missions. There were robots here that were used at Fukushima. All in all, it was the utopian picture of robots that dominated this petting zoo, and a picture of the robotic future that optimists prefer. Laura Sydell, NPR News, Austin, Texas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.