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.”


Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

Updated 23 September 2018
0

Ivory Coast looks to solar vehicles to replace bush taxis

  • A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil
  • Ivory Coast is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020

JACQUEVILLE, Ivory Coast: Hi-tech, cheap — and quiet. The Ivorian resort of Jacqueville just outside Abidjan is betting on solar-powered three-wheelers as it looks to replace traditional but noisy and dirty bush taxis.
“It’s cheaper and relaxing!” says local trader Sandrine Tetelo, of the Chinese-made “Saloni” or “Antara” tricycles, which could eventually spell the end for old-school “woro-woro” four-wheelers as Jacqueville looks to make itself Ivory Coast’s premier eco city.
The mini-cars, 2.7 meters (8.8 feet) long and two meters high, are covered in solar panels each fitted out with six 12-volt batteries, giving the vehicles a range of 140 kilometers (87 miles).
Returning from a visit to China, the solar cars’ promotor Marc Togbe pitched his plan to mayor Joachim Beugre, who was immediately sold.
“We are used to seeing (typically old and beaten up) bush taxis pollute the atmosphere and the environment. We said to ourselves, if we could only replace them by solar trikes,” said Beugre.
“The adventure started in January with two little cars,” added Togbe, who has created a partnership with local businessman Balla Konate.
“I went to China with a friend,” says Konate, “and afterwards I sent four youngsters to Lome for training with a friend who had spoken to me about the project.”
He wants to extend operations to Odienne and Korhogo, towns in the north, the country’s sunniest region.
“Today, a dozen cars are up and running. We are right in the test phase. More and more people are asking for them,” says Beugre, seeing a chance to kill several birds with one solar stone.
Long isolated, his town, nestled between a laguna and the sea, has flourished in terms of real estate and tourism since the 2015 inauguration of a bridge linking Jacqueville to the mainland and cutting transit time to Abidjan to less than an hour.
For the start of the school year in October, Jacqueville plans to bring on stream a 22-seater “solar coach” designed to help deal with “the thorny issue of pupils’ transport.”
Many schoolchildren typically have to travel tens of kilometers from their home village to urban schools.
So far, the trikes have also provided work for around 20 people including drivers and mechanics.
“We’re on the go from six in the morning and finish around 10 or even midnight, weekends too,” says Philippe Aka Koffi, a 24-year-old who has been working as a driver for five months.
“It’s pleasant for doing your shopping more quickly,” says an impressed passenger, Aholia Guy Landry, after riding in a vehicle which can carry four people, driver included.
A big plus is the 100 CFA francs (0.15 euros/$0.18) price of a trip — half a typical downtown “woro-woro” fare — helping to attract between 500 and 1,000 people a day, according to the town hall and promoter.
A switch to solar and durables may appear paradoxical in Jacqueville, however, as the area produces the lion’s share of the country’s gas and oil.
The wells outside the town produce 235 million cubic feet of gas per day, while several foreign firms run pipelines taking oil and gas across the town to feed the refineries at Abidjan.
But the municipality — total budget 140 million CFA francs — sees none of the profits, an issue which has drawn public ire in the past.
The 50-million-CFA trike project is just one piece in a much larger jigsaw which includes the construction of a new eco city on a 240-hectare site among coconut trees.
“It will not be a city for the rich,” insists Beugre, showing off a blueprint replete with cycle paths and a university.
“All social strata who respect the environment will be able to live there,” he adds.
Yet at national level, such plans are conspicuous by their absence.
Ivory Coast, west African leader in electricity production — 75 percent of which comes from thermal energy and the remainder from hydroelectric dams — is targeting an 11-percent share of national consumption for renewables by 2020.
Even though by September the country had burned through barely one single megawatt of solar energy for this year, Beugre is undaunted.
“Our ecological project will go all the way” and “stand up to the power of oil and gas,” says the cowboy-hatted local politician.
“In years to come, we want to ensure that these solar-power machines become the main means of travel in the area.”