Robots are getting more social. Are humans ready?

1 / 2
In this Jan. 10, 2018, photo the Anki Inc.'s Cozmo toy robot is displayed at CES International in Las Vegas. (AP)
2 / 2
In this July 30, 2018, photo, Anki Inc. CEO Boris Sofman holds Vector, the company's new home robot, in New York. (AP)
Updated 09 August 2018
0

Robots are getting more social. Are humans ready?

  • Robots trace their lineage back to an interactive humanoid head named Kismet, which Breazeal built in an MIT lab in the 1990s
  • Social robots hold great promise in helping an aging population

BOSTON: Personal home robots that can socialize with people are starting to roll out of the laboratory and into our living rooms and kitchens. But are humans ready to invite them into their lives?
It’s taken decades of research to build robots even a fraction as sophisticated as those featured in popular science fiction. They don’t much resemble their fictional predecessors; they mostly don’t walk, only sometimes roll and often lack limbs. And they’re nowhere close to matching the language, social skills and physical dexterity of people.
Worse, they’re so far losing out to immobile smart speakers made by Amazon, Apple and Google, which cost a fraction of what early social robots do, and which are powered by artificial-intelligence systems that leave many robots’ limited abilities in the dust.
That hasn’t stopped ambitious robot-makers from launching life-like robots into the market — albeit with mixed results so far.
Two pioneers in a new vanguard of cute, sociable robots — Jibo, a curvy talking speaker, and Kuri, a cartoonish wheeled “nanny” — have been early casualties. The makers of Vector, a less expensive home robot that was unveiled Wednesday, hope theirs will be a bigger hit.
Still others, including a rumored Amazon project and robots designed to provide companionship for senior citizens, remain in the development phase.
“I think we’re going to start seeing some come to market this year,” said Vic Singh, a founding general partner of Eniac Ventures, which has invested in several robotics startups. But they’ll be limited to very specific uses, he warned.
Hopes for social robots keep outpacing reality. Late last year, the squat, almost featureless Jibo graced the cover of Time Magazine’s “best inventions” edition. Its creator, MIT robotics researcher Cynthia Breazeal, told The Associated Press at the time that “there’s going to be a time when everybody will just take the personal robot for granted.”
That time has not yet arrived.
Jibo, a foot-high, vaguely conical device topped by a wide hemispherical “head,” stays where you put it, typically on a countertop. But it can swivel its flat, round screen “face” to meet your gaze; tells joke and plays music; and can shimmy convincingly if you ask it to dance. It was pitched as “the world’s first social robot for the home.”
At almost $900, though, Jibo didn’t win anywhere near enough friends. It’s still for sale online, but its parent company reportedly laid off much of its workforce in June and didn’t reply to requests for comment.
“It’s a really cool device, but it didn’t offer a ton of utility,” Singh said.
In late July, another startup, California-based Mayfield Robotics, ceased manufacturing Kuri, a roving $699 machine that would shoot pictures and video from cameras hidden behind its round, blinking eyes. Other home robots, such as the three-foot, video-screen equipped personal assistant Temi ($1,499) and Sony’s dog-like Aibo ($1,800), are even less affordable.
“You cannot sell a robot for $800 or $1,000 that has capabilities of less than an Alexa,” said Boris Sofman, CEO of Anki, which plans to launch its pet-like Vector this fall.
Promising a robotic future beyond “puck-like vacuum cleaners and lifeless cylindrical talking speakers,” Anki is pitching the $249 Vector as an older brother to its tiny — and feisty — toy robot Cozmo.
Both robots are tiny enough to fit in your palm. They scoot around on tank treads and chirp more than talk, but Vector can answer basic questions, set a timer or deliver messages from email and texts. It can rest on a tabletop until it hears a door open or, using facial recognition, “sees” a familiar person in view. It purrs when you rub its gold-plated back.
Social robots trace their lineage back to an interactive humanoid head named Kismet, which Breazeal built in an MIT lab in the 1990s. Since then, advances in artificial intelligence have propelled the field forward. The popularity of Alexa and its ilk has also helped take the strangeness out of talking machines.
The key for Vector and other companion robots, experts say, is to strike the right balance between usefulness and personality. (Affordability also seems pretty important.) Though there’s plenty of disagreement over what makes the proper balance.
Fall short on personality, and “you better be perfect because the moment you make a mistake, you’re going to be the big lumbering robot that made a mistake,” Sofman said. But people can forgive errors so long as the robot reacts in a realistic way.
Anki hired animators from Pixar and DreamWorks to give character to Cozmo and Vector. Israeli startup Intuitions Robotics brought on prominent industrial designer Yves Behar to help craft the look of ElliQ, which is designed for seniors. The robot is expected to launch next year.
“We were looking for an aesthetic that will earn the right to be part of people’s life for a long period of time, not just a gadget or a toy,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s founder and CEO.
Instead of cute, ElliQ aims for calm. Designed to sit on an end table, the robot is shaped like a rounded table lamp with a circular light shining from inside its translucent plastic head. It swivels frequently, directing attention to the person it’s speaking with, and has an adjacent tablet screen to show off photos or text messages.
Many researchers say social robots hold great promise in helping an aging population. Such robots could remind seniors to take medicine, prompt them to get up and move or visit others, and help them stay in better touch with extended family and friends.
For the robots to catch on across all ages, though, they need to prove themselves useful and helpful, said James Young, a researcher at the University of Manitoba’s human-computer interaction lab.
“Whether that’s by helping with loneliness, helping with tasks like cooking, that’s key,” he said. “Once people are convinced something is useful or actually saves them time, they’re really good at adapting.”


‘Stronger than ever’: India set for fresh Moon launch attempt

Updated 21 July 2019
0

‘Stronger than ever’: India set for fresh Moon launch attempt

  • The South Asian nation is bidding to become just the fourth nation to land a spacecraft on the Moon
  • The first launch attempt was scrubbed just under an hour before the scheduled lift-off because of what authorities described as a “technical snag”

SRIHARIKOTA, India: India will make a second attempt Monday to send a landmark spacecraft to the Moon after an apparent fuel leak forced last week’s launch to be aborted.
The South Asian nation is bidding to become just the fourth nation — after Russia, the United States and China — to land a spacecraft on the Moon.
The mission comes 50 years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to step foot on the moon, an occasion celebrated by space enthusiasts globally on Saturday
The fresh launch attempt for Chandrayaan-2 — Moon Chariot 2 in some Indian languages including Sanskrit and Hindi — has been scheduled for 2:43 p.m. (0913 GMT) on Monday, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said.
“Chandrayaan 2 is ready to take a billion dreams to the Moon — now stronger than ever before!” it said on Thursday.
The first launch attempt was scrubbed just under an hour before the scheduled lift-off because of what authorities described as a “technical snag.” Local media, citing ISRO officials, said that issue was a fuel leak.
The agency tweeted Saturday that a rehearsal for the launch was completed successfully.
Chandrayaan-2 will be launched atop a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII, India’s most powerful rocket.
Experts said setbacks were to be expected in such missions given their complexity, and that it was more prudent to delay the launch instead of taking risks that may jeopardize the project.
“In such an ambitious and prestigious mission like Chandrayaan, one cannot take a chance even if a small flaw is detected,” Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, head of space policy at the New Delhi think tank the Observer Research Foundation, told AFP.
Former NASA scientist Kumar Krishen said India’s space agency should be praised for taking on ambitious projects like Chandrayaan-2.
“We should keep in mind that space exploration is risky as many systems have failed in the past and many lives lost,” he told AFP.
Aside from propelling India into rarefied company among spacefaring nations, Chandrayaan-2 also stands out because of its low cost.
About $140 million has been spent on preparations for the mission, a much smaller price tag compared with similar missions by other countries — whose costs often run into billions of dollars.
Chandrayaan-2, and India’s space program as a whole, are a source of national pride in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outlined an ambitious plan to launch a crewed space mission by 2022, and India hopes to seek out commercial satellite and orbiting deals.
The new mission comes almost 11 years after the launch of India’s first lunar mission — Chandrayaan-1 — which orbited the Moon and searched for water.
The rocket carrying Chandrayaan-2 will launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at Sriharikota, an island off the coast of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
The spacecraft will carry an orbiter, lander and a rover, which has been almost entirely designed and made in India.
The orbiter is planned to circle the Moon for about one year, imaging the surface and studying the atmosphere.
The lander, named Vikram, will head to the surface near the lunar South Pole carrying the rover. Once it touches down, the rover will carry out experiments while being controlled remotely by ISRO scientists.
It is expected to work for one lunar day, the equivalent of 14 Earth days, and will look for signs of water and “a fossil record of the early solar system.”