Socially Intelligent Robots With a Human Touch
by Jon Wood
This week, I really wanted to explore the world of Robotics as there are some really interesting things happening at the moment and it’s a personal interest of mine. 🙂
Just before I get started, I, like you, have my doubts about how far this technology should be allowed to go… There’s a lot of research at the moment focusing on robots and the impact on the human workforce. Estimates say they could potentially take 15% of jobs by 2030. For the most part, this is probably true, however, it will be sectors where for some time now a human has not been needed, sectors such as Manufacturing, Automobile, and Military, for example.
Also, look at it from a point of view of what you might do had you more free time to pursue your dream career, or, better still, you didn’t even have to work at all. According to Bill Gates, robots should pay taxes. I think we’re a long way off having to worry about this today but it certainly raises the question of what happens to us if we are simply not needed within the workforce.
I also think we have to remember that this is a new era and this isn’t the first time that technology has played a part in improving our lives.
Socially Intelligent Robots and Their Applications
Recently, scientists have showcased socially intelligent robots, which they believe will help tackle loneliness, customer service, and the healthcare space.
I wanted to start with a robot called Bo. Bo has been designed by a company called BotsandUs, a brand new robot that’s been designed to meet and greet visitors at trade shows and events on a global scale. It can collect information on request and it can act as a brand ambassador for companies.
I have recently met Bo’s two co-creators Andrei Danescu and Adrian Negoita and I was very impressed with what they had planned for Bo.
Another of these socially intelligent robots is called Pepper. It can hug, dance, and give people high-fives. It has been developed as a customer services robot to help in shopping centres. Pepper will greet shoppers and guide them to wherever they want to go.
This sounds really cool and I think the younger generation will 100% engage with Pepper, but what happened to us just using our head to navigate our way around? Should we just depend on technology to cater for all our needs…?
Pepper’s developers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh believe that it could, in future, be deployed in healthcare to support social interaction between elderly individuals, reducing feelings of isolation, encouraging them to play games and reminding them to take medication. I couldn’t agree more that robots could help to treat loneliness.
The robot has been on display at the European Robotics Forum 2017 in Edinburgh. Around 800 roboticists from the European Union have gathered to showcase the new generation of robots. Pepper was also recently displayed at MIPIM’s event in Cannes, France.
Robots to the Rescue?
Professor David Lane, Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, says robots are helping us in the way that we work in manufacturing, in hazardous environments, and in healthcare.
“There are going to be lots of applications where robots will be working as assistants alongside people,” says Lane.
I guess the next step then is the humanisation side of robots. I personally wouldn’t want to work with a moving metal box. I also think it’s important that we distinguish emotional boundaries between robots and humans as, if we are to work alongside one another day in and day out, will it get to the time when a robot becomes a “friend”.
The Uncanny Valley
There’s another aspect to consider here, on the humanisation side of things. The Uncanny Valley theory is where, as a robot becomes more human-like, the more unnerving it appears to humans. This creates a barrier in our willingness to engage.
Recently, scientists have reported the existence of a second Uncanny Valley, where a robot may not look human, but is able to communicate and express itself in a distinctly humanlike way. Such a robot will also creep people out. This is a tough negotiation that roboticists need to work out… can it be overcome with increased exposure, or will there have to always be a significant gap?
I tend to believe that we will be able to overcome this Uncanny Valley with increased exposure. We already know that, the more we are exposed to things, the easier they are to deal with – horror movies and video games are just one example.
Socially Intelligent Robots: Icub
Another interesting robot is Icub, which can see, hear, and learn. Fifty-three motors control arm, hand and head movements. Fifty-three motors… wow!
It’s designed to learn human skills with a view to interacting with them emotionally. Just to reiterate: should we be considering robot laws to stop to a machine becoming an emotional attachment? Does this undermine human-human interaction, or would robot friends and colleagues simply broaden our social circle? An interesting question, and certainly one to debate at length!
Icub’s makers think it might one day help assist people with autism or dementia, again a wonderful idea. Dementia is such a crippling and lonely disease it makes sense to have a companion who could be on call 24 hours a day, which leads us back to the question posed above. Its developer, Dr Katrin Lohan, says:
“[Icub] changes over the time of its existence. It’s unique in terms of its capabilities, it can move, it can talk and it’s very human-like.
“We would like to create a natural interaction interface. When robots are out there in the wild with us, we don’t want to sit behind a computer and programme them.
“Instead, we want them to understand us. We want them to hear what we are saying and just follow our suggestions and actually teach them like we teach our children.”
There are certainly some poignant questions to be asked as we move closer to the era of widespread robot use. I, for one, am curious and vastly fascinated about what comes next – for better or worse. What are your thoughts about the rise of the robots? Should we embrace them with open arms, or remain wary of the potential threat of their existence?
I hope you all enjoyed that small insight into the world of socially intelligent robots. I would be happy to have a chat about anything that interests you, so do feel free to get in touch.
Jon Wood is Business Development Manager at TDMB Tech. A passionate tech geek, he loves talking to anyone and everyone working in the world of technology. He’s also a massive advocate for getting tech companies the exposure they need to build their presence within the booming technology industry.
Aside from his love of tech, Jon is also a long time Spice Girls fan (he was a member of their fan club throughout the nineties). If you would like to get in touch with him, either about Technology or The Spice Girls, you can drop him a line on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email him directly.