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.”


Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

Updated 18 November 2018
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Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

  • Pakistan digital growth is supported by population and increasing penetration of internet, IT experts
  • Prime Minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom to meet next week to draw comprehensive policy

KARACHI: Destine to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030, Pakistan, supported by a growing population, fast growing business and increasing penetration of Internet, is poised to grab first position among the digital economies, Information Technology (IT) experts say.
US technology giant, Google, says Pakistan is quickly becoming a “digital-first country”, which means there are new opportunities for brands to reach and engage with consumers that may have previously been overlooked.
“It shows that Google has realized the marketing potential of the country and they are now encouraging businesses to focus on Pakistan as a potential market,” Badar Khushnood, vice president of growth at Fishry.Com and vice chairman of [email protected], commented.
According to Google, there are five reasons for “considering expanding your digital campaigns into Pakistan”.
Pakistan’s growing population is the first reason that makes the country attractive for the foreign and local investors to venture into the IT sector.
“Pakistan has a population of more than 202 million people, which means there are lot of potential consumers coming online every day. And the country is even more urbanized than neighboring India, with nearly 40 percent of total households living in cities,” writes Lars Anthonizen, head of large customer marketing, South Asia, Google.
Pakistan’s economy grew by 5.7 percent in fiscal year 2018. HSBC in is recent report published in September 2018 has projected Pakistan to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030.
Around 90 percent of the companies in the country are SMEs which are contributing more that 40 percent to the country’s 313 billion economy, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
Third attraction, according to Google, is the country’s growing smart phone users. Pakistan has 152 million cellar subscribers, and 60 million 3G/4G subscribers, according to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
This number will likely grow quickly as smart phone prices have dropped over the last few years. Pakistan also has some of the cheapest data prices in the world, which is helping to grow mobile app usage, according to Google.
However, experts say more work is needed to be done to fully utilize the existing potential. “We need to work on optic fibers, penetration of 4G, creation of data centers, telecom infrastructure and most importantly creation of awareness among masses,” Pervaiz Iftikhar, a member of the newly formed prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom, told Arab News.
Pakistan’s overall Internet penetration stands at 29.9 percent with 62 million broadband subscribers, a fourth attraction for the investor, as per Google. In spite of this, digital consumption in the country continues to grow quickly. YouTube watch time, for example, has seen over 60 percent growth over the last three years.
The Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the largest Chinese investment venture in Pakistan with around $62 billion, a fifth reason to look toward Pakistan.
The mega project under BRI is not only limited to the infrastructure and energy sector but it is also contributing to the growth of the IT sector in Pakistan.
“One of the first CPEC projects is to lay 820 kilometers of fiber-optic cable, connecting more Pakistanis to the Internet. This is in addition to ongoing investments in 3G and 4G network expansions from China Mobile, and the company has already announced plans to invest another $225 million in 4G expansion (bringing its total investment to $2.4 billion),” writes Lars Anthonizen.
“We have to connect every village through fiber optics that will not only create thousands of jobs but would multiply opportunities for the IT business countrywide,” Pervaiz Iftikhar added.
“A lot of potential exists in the IT sector of Pakistan with the young population turning to computers, smart phones and other digital means, and the country offers big market for local and foreign investors”, Jehan Ara, another member of the prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom and president of [email protected], commented.
Badar Khushnood, who is also former consultant of Google, Facebook and Twitter, called for comprehensive policy for the growth of the IT sector.
“Taxation systems should be rationalized, simplified, and encouraging for startups. The country also needs data protection laws, and broader cyber laws,” he added.
The first meeting of the prime minister’s Task Force on IT and Telecom is expected to be held next week in Islamabad. “Comprehensive strategy including short term and long term measures would be discussed in the upcoming meeting of taskforce because country needs a policy for the persistent growth of IT and Telecom sector”, Pervaiz Iftikhar informed.