Robots are getting more social. Are humans ready?

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In this Jan. 10, 2018, photo the Anki Inc.'s Cozmo toy robot is displayed at CES International in Las Vegas. (AP)
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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
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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.”


Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

  • Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates

NEW YORK: Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.
A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.
This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.
The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.
At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.
They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.
“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.
But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.
Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”
“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.
“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?“