iCub is an open-source hardware project described as a “cognitive humanoid robotic platform." The project was initiated in Italy, but the technology is now in use at several other labs, including the University of Hertfordshire. Researchers there, taking part in the iTalk project, have carried out experiments to find out how robots can develop basic language skills by interacting with a human.

The iCub humanoid has become a kind of celebrity, and has even been nominated to participate in the Olympic Torch Relay for London's 2012 Summer Olympics. The Hertforshire experiment, which is part of the iTalk project and whose iCub robot is called DeeChee, is not just an experiment in teaching a machine to develop language, but rather an investigation into how language learning emerges. The researchers talked to DeeChee as if it were a small child, who initially can only babble and discern a string of sounds without clear words. It is the repetition of syllables that gives the machine toddler a cue to form words, for now describing shapes and colors only.

Researcher Dr. Carolyne Lyon said infants are sensitive to the frequency of sounds in speech, and the experiments show that this perception can be modeled and contribute to the learning of word forms by a robot, which is part of the research into human-robot interaction. The robot does not know the meaning of the words - that would be another part of the iTalk project. The overall goal is to make advances in the technology of interactive robotic systems.

iCub was developed at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia as part of the EU RobotCub project and has been adopted by more than 20 labs all over the world. It features 53 motors that move the head, arms and hands, waist, and legs. It can see and hear and has the sense of proprioception (body configuration) as well as movement (using accelerometers and gyroscopes). Researchers are now working to give the techno toddler a sense of touch and a measure of how much force it exerts on the environment.

Its latest public appearance was at the Harmonic Drive stand at the Automatica 2012 fair in Munich between the 22nd and 25th of May. ITT says it is working to provide joint-level torque control, and developing a full body skin for the iCub, which is not linked to Apple Computers. The "i" was originally a capitalized “I” as in “I robot”. It ended up as iCub for aesthetic reasons, ITT’s Giorgio Metta told Gizmag.

The paper on the University of Hertfordshire research, called Interactive Language Learning by Robots: The Transition from Babbling to Word Forms, can be read in the journal PLos ONE.

The video below shows a researcher teaching DeeChee how to speak.