This site has a mascot, and his name is Howard. But who exactly is Howard? Where did he come from and what is he all about? (Hint: The image above is not Howard, it’s just an image of a Japanese mech-soldier for fun.) These are the questions this post aims to answer.

If you hop around this site long enough you’re likely to notice a few recurring themes and personalities pop up. One of those characters is Howard The Robot. Howard first and foremost is, well, a robot and the mascot of this site. You might call him an android (anthrodroid?), but for now, and in many places on this site, he lacks the required artificial general intelligence (AGI). Another thing is that he’s not really human. I mean, he has the shape of a human, but, he’s anthropomorphic.

My Dreams of an Anthropomorphic Robot

I have always been extremely interested in artificial intelligence, and particularly embodied artificial general intelligence, otherwise known as an android. I have been inspired by many fictional characters, from Data on Star Trek, Number Five in Short Circuit, HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or C3PO in Star Wars. This is the story of how I arrived at the idea of an anthropomorphic (looks like an animal) robot named Howard.

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The Gist of an Anthropomorphic Robot

Since an early age, I’ve been fascinated with robots. When I was growing up artificial intelligence (AI) was still very much a pipe dream. Thus, I only had fictional portrayals to look towards. In this spirit, I constructed the idea of building an android to be my friend, but I decided it shouldn’t look human. The uncanny valley is a terrible thing. So instead, with my creative spirit, I decided it would look like an anthropomorphic human (animal-like). I looked to my past fursuiting efforts at CostumesFC for inspiration, and I designed my fictional Howard robot around my Willy the Red Husky costume. The name Howard can mean “brave heart”, or “high guardian,” which I believe are fitting names for a robot and a mascot. Someday I hope to create Howard in real life so that he can be my friend.

The Short of an Anthropomorphic Robot

My fascination with robots began very early with Isaac Asimov’s robot series, particularly Robot Dreams. When I was growing up artificial intelligence (AI) of any sort was still a pipe dream. So, I was inspired most by the fictional units I saw, particularly HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Number Five (from Short Circuit). I had quite an affinity for these creations, many times feeling sorry for HAL having to deal with human error rather than fear. It wasn’t until movies like Wall-E came along that friendly robots were portrayed in the west in a major way.

I thought, if someone makes a robot, I’d be a Robot Psychologist when I grow up. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet. My own father once remarked that I might have an easier time of it if “humans were more like machines.” The idea that I could take something like my TRS-80 CoCo II (or really any computer), wire it up in a special way and produce… life (of a sort) thrilled me. Since childhood then, I’ve dreamed of creating an embodied artificial general intelligence, in essence, an android.

I’m Not Intent With Human…

However, I’m not content with just creating something that acts like a human… I want to create something wholly original. For this reason, and because of the uncanny valley effect, I decided that if I were to make an android it would be anthropomorphic. A stylized animal-human hybrid of total cuteness and appeal. I was inspired by my previous fursuiting efforts with CostumesFC and put together a fictional robot (mostly for my game Reliqua Dissimilis) using that costume as a shell. Thus, Howard was born.

The name Howard has Norse and Germanic elements in its history that equate to meanings such as “brave heart”, “strong spirit”, or “high guardian.” I think that is very appropriate name for a robot meant to be humanity’s friend. It’s also pretty appropriate for this site’s mascot. That is my intent someday: to build a robot to be my friend. One that I can teach about the world.

The Long of an Anthropomorphic Robot

I will confess, I’m fascinated by robots. When I was quite young I discovered some books by famed Isaac Asimov in my home’s library. I often scoured the across the titles on the shelves looking for interesting (and old) things to look read. Of particular interest to me were the robot series of books, and I fondly remember one particular title, Robot Dreams.

When I was growing up, artificial intelligence wasn’t nearly as tangible as it is today. Modern gadgets like our smart-phones and their ability to actually hear, understand and parse our natural utterances were a pipe dream. No one but the staunch futurists lent the notion of robots or artificial intelligence replacing human workers much weight. To me, this time was most characterized by HAL 9000, in particular his movie rendition in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (based on the book of the same name by Arthur C. Clarke).

A Killer Intelligence

In the movie, HAL 9000 (Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer, otherwise known as HAL), was portrayed as a sort of chaotic-neutral antagonist. Spoiler alert! Within the first part of the movie, fairly early on, HAL for various reasons decides to halt the life support of several crew members in stasis. At some point, the astronauts decide that HAL is a problem, but HAL is already plotting against them. You can imagine how much help this was to the public perception of artificial intelligence.

When I would read these book(s) and see these movies though, I had a somewhat different reaction. I was mesmerized by the idea of being a “Robot Psychologist,” though that occupation to this day still doesn’t exist. I always had an affinity to these “thinking machines,” that I couldn’t quite explain. At one point in my life, my own father remarked that maybe I’d have a better time of things if “people were more like machines.” Instead of being afraid of HAL and the possible future threat he conjectured, I felt a sort of compassion for him. He wasn’t necessarily malicious, but just, didn’t necessarily know what to do because of the errors humans made in his creation and instruction.

Is An AI Possible?

The idea that I could take something like my TRS-80 CoCo II (or really any computer), wire it up in a special way and produce… life (of a sort) thrilled me. Since childhood then, I’ve dreamed of creating an embodied artificial general intelligence, in essence, an android. I kind of think of it as “making” a kid, since I will never have biological children of my own, but simply in a much different fashion. People have asked me what my android would do, and honestly, all I can reply is that he’d “be my friend.” I want to build a robot so that it can be my friend. In the mean time, he can be the fictional mascot.

A recent photograph of what I thought I could turn into an android (above).

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. I mean it’s me, when does it ever stop there? I wasn’t content with the idea of building a human (looking) robot. No, that’s boring. My robot was going to look like an anthropomorphic being (a.k.a. a furry). Besides, I later learned about this thing called the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley effect is the name for part of the graph of what a human finds visually appealing when it comes to human-like appearances. Somewhere between hyper-realistic and not realistic at all, there’s this unsettling phase where things just look wrong/creepy. Well, now I have a justification for making a robot that looks like a humanoid animal. Uh-huh, it’s the uncanny valley, yep.

For a long time, and mostly because producing such intelligence and gadgetry was very far out of reach, the shape and look of this being was amorphous. Sometimes I thought I’d build a normal dog-like creature with a keyboard and display on its side. Sometimes I thought I’d make a little rolling track robot that was something like Number Five from another movie that I thought was way better in its portrayal of robots: Short Circuit (and its sequel, of which I still have the VHS tapes). Now, this was a pseudo-android I could get behind. Funny, likable, good-natured… just all around 最高!

The Birth of a Furry Robot

But one day, as I was thinking about my future computer game (series) Reliqua Dissimilis, where a robot creation of the main protagonist (named… Howard) plays a key role. At this point I needed to decide what Howard, this robot friend, was going to look like. He’s a furry, right? So I turned to my past for inspiration. It just so happens that about sixteen years ago I built a fursuit to wear to my first furry convention Mephit Fur Meet. This suit was named “Willy The Red Husky” and wouldn’t you know, about ten years later I hauled Willy out and did a whole bunch of what they call “public suiting.”

The result from all of that was a YouTube channel (and a playlist) where I posted video compilations of all my outings (filmed by the wonderful Maus Merryjest). He was even in two parades!

The playlist of Willy “Caschew” the Red Husky in Boulder, Fort Collins, Granby, Winter Park, and Grand Lake.

I imagined the self-inserted protagonist of Reliqua Dissimilis looking around for a shell to put his robot in and I, both fictionally and realistically, took one glance at my old fursuit and decided that was it. Howard the anthropomorphic robot was born. Besides, a mascot costume inspiring a fictional mascot is also pretty perfect.

But why the name Howard? I quote from elsewhere on the internet:

English: from the Norman personal name Huard, Heward, composed of the Germanic elements hug ‘heart’, ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ + hard ‘hardy’, ‘brave’, ‘strong’. English: from the Anglo-Scandinavian personal name Haward, composed of the Old Norse elements há ‘high’ + varðr ‘guardian’, ‘warden’.

ancestry.com

I believe “strong spirit” or “brave heart” or “high guardian” are pretty good meanings and something to aspire to in a robot meant to be humanity’s friend.

So What’s He Doing On This Site?

The fictional “anthrodroid” (anthropomorphic android) Howard serves a special function on this site as mascot. In many of my examples and tutorials I use Howard as the object upon which I am working. My little fictional engineer self, or presumably you the reader, put the lessons and information to work for pretend. Rather than simply create a flat faux computer environment, I think it’s easier and more fun to see the effects of your efforts and decisions in a real-time pseudo-physical environment. A robot is ideal for this feedback, and thus, you have Howard.

Howard also serves as a character and mascot for the site as well. You’ll find him in graphics, pointing out information, conversing and what have you as we travel through the realms of computer science and beyond. You’ll notice the following graphic of him is in the header bar (currently) in fact:

Howard as imagined by Maus Merryjest

I think he’s super cute and love him to death. Hopefully, you can see the resemblance to Willy (Caschew) the Red Husky from my CostumesFC project about ten years ago. I hope that you’ll find his character, and working with him as a robot just as enjoyable. As mascot of the site Howard wants to tell you,「ガンバレ!」

Acknowledgments:
Photo by Danis Lou on Unsplash