All posts by Charlotte Richardson Andrews

AI With a Heart: Will 2015 be the year of the personal robot?


Robots that can communicate with us are finally making their way into our homes, with the first going on sale at the start of next year. We investigate whether 2015 will be the year when the robotic family friend becomes part of our lives. 

Emotionally responsive, home-based robots are on the rise, and Pepper – the two-legged brainchild of French robotics specialist Aldebaran and Japanese firm Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory – is leading the way.

The 4ft tall helper, unveiled in Japan this June, comes with a ‘face’, laser sensors, a screen in its chest and twelve hours of battery life. Pepper can dance, tell jokes and estimate human emotions using lasers which let it detect, identify and respond to human expressions.

Pepper could be a boon for Japan’s home care market, which faces a significant shortfall of workers due to a rapidly aging population (Europe is expected to reach a 2:1 ratio of workers to pensioners by 2060).

But for now, the robot is being primarily marketed as a companion for children. The robo-nanny will be on sale in Japan in February 2015 for a thrifty 198,000 yen ($1900), and will go on sale in the US in the summer.


Family helpers

Pepper is just one of a recent crop of emotionally responsive home robots. Also making waves is the crowd-funded JIBO, a ‘family robot’ designed by social robotics pioneer Dr Cynthia Breazeal. Unlike Pepper, which is designed to appear human, JIBO has a small, limbless 11in body with a rotating head and an expressive but not-quite-human ‘face’ screen – more lovable family pet shaped than humanoid. Over 4,800 JIBOs have been pre-ordered, while 71 will be donated to Boston Children’s Hospital.

Two high-res cameras allow JIBO to recognise and track family members’ faces, detect natural cues including movement, speech and smile, take pictures and enable immersive video calling. Like Pepper, a voice function allows it to read and communicate – perfect for bedtime stories – while delivering hands free messages and reminders to busy parents.

Its skill set means JIBO is being marketed as a nanny, tutor, buddy, personal assistant and family helper all rolled into one, with open platform software allowing owners to develop applications themselves – tailoring and personalising their JIBOs to suit each user’s individual needs.


The human connection

JIBO is designed to help you “feel closer to the ones you love”, says Dr Breazeal – to help you intuitively, like “a partner” rather than an appliance. The emotionally responsive capabilities that JIBO and Pepper boast are part of a drive to humanise the robot, which was long seen as cold, clinical and unfeeling.

“People describe others as being robots because they have no emotions, no heart,” observed SoftBank boss Masayoshi Son while speaking at a press conference in June. “For the first time in human history, we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions.”

Studies show that humans are more likely to warm to robots that have ‘faces’, and therefore appear human. Both Pepper and JIBO have been built with this in mind –the latter boasting both a face and an expressive tablet-sized screen in its chest, and the former an expressive face-like screen.

So is it likely we’ll eventually move on from needing a humanising face on our home robots? Absolutely, says Dr Nick Hawes, senior lecturer in intelligent robotics at the University of Birmingham. “Humans anthropomorphise non-human things all the time – things both natural and artificial – ascribing emotions and motivations to cars, computers, insects and so on,” he explains. “It’s clear that the same treatment will be – and already is – extended to robots.”

Inspired by nostalgia

Autonomous, emotionally responsive AI is cutting-edge, but it has been in our collective imagination for decades. Son has said Pepper was inspired by the cartoon character Astro Boy from a Japanese TV series that the SoftBank boss loved as a child, while the creators of JIBO took their clues from Pixar’s adorable animated characters and creatures.

For adults who have grown up dreaming of owning a robo-buddy like the many featured in TV shows and films – Flight of the Navigator, Short Circuit, Star Wars, Batteries Not Included, Wall-E – it’s a form of wish fulfilment. And as cheap, high-street toys such as Tamagotchis and Furbys prove, our love for robo-pets is an enduring one.

“Maybe nostalgia is important initially for a small number of geeks – myself included,” observes Hawes. “But if these [new, social] robots don’t perform useful tasks, including entertainment, or operate robustly and reliably, then the sheen of nostalgia will rub off quickly.”


Friend or foe?

Robo-buddies can also function as educational, therapeutic playmates. Kaspar – an expressive child-sized humanoid robot designed as a toy and aid for autistic children – has been championed by teachers and families alike. Meanwhile French company Leka won the inaugural start-up competition prize set up this year by Robohub and Sillicone Valley Robotics for its product Moti, a robotic ball that is sensitive to its environment, moves autonomously and changes colours to emote feelings – encouraging autistic children to regulate their own emotions.

While Kasapr and Moti serve specific, targeted medical functions, is there a danger that one-of-the-family style robots such as JIBO and Pepper will weaken family ties as they become stand-ins for parents, or take over the activities that normally serve to deepen emotional bonds between parent and child, such as bedtime stories and help with homework?

Or will their ability to perform menial tasks free up time-pressed adults to engage with their children – and each other – in more meaningful ways?

“What have smart phones done to families?” parries Hawes. “I think the same pros and cons exist there. I really don’t see the current robots being discussed ever having the danger of replacing a family member, but they will provide a distraction. As a labour saving device a robot could free up time like a dishwasher or washing machine do, so there is nothing novel about this use of technology.”


Future considerations

Robots such as Pepper are designed to connect with a cloud to exchange data with other Peppers around the world, pooling their knowledge to help them develop and hone their emotional responses. But as recent high-profile hacking scandals have shown, cloud storage is not infallible to security breaches. So will home robots be vulnerable to hacking?

“I doubt robots will be any more vulnerable to hacking than our phones, laptops, TVs and other networked devices,” says Hawes. “However, due to their ability to act in the physical world, they may become a much more desirable target for hackers. So we should absolutely take the security of these systems seriously.

We should also hold the companies who put robots in our midst accountable for their use and storage of our data, which they will inevitable collect to some degree.”

While Pepper and JIBO herald an exciting new age of relatively affordable home robots, Hawes is pragmatic when it comes to the potential capabilities of future home robots.

“I think in the near future we won’t see much of an advance in actual abilities beyond cleaning and security in home robots,” he says. “The challenges of operating in the average home – cluttered floors, stairs, doors – typically make the problem much harder than many proponents of domestic robotics make out. We are much more likely to see robots operating in service roles in large offices and institutions, factories and warehouses in the near future. Perhaps in ten or 20 years there might be a robot that can clear up after my kids. Of course, it would come too late to save me.”

One of the largest and most overlooked challenges in AI and robotics is creating a system that can do many different things in a flexible manner, explains Dr Hawes. “This is often what people mean when they talk about ‘human’ capabilities in a robot. Every machine that exists today does one or a small number of very specific things, and cannot do a huge range of others. Robots will be the same, so we will have specific robotic devices for specific problems, rather than general purpose human-like robots who can do anything we think of.”

Featured image plus images one and three courtesy of Softbank Group. Image two courtesy of Jibo and image four courtesy of University of Hertfordshire

Has the digital revolution really changed the music industry?


“It’s entirely possible to create a cottage business around your music and stay in control”, says Laura Kidd, an independent (indie) artist who records as She Makes War.

She argues that increasingly sophisticated technology allows artists to record music, build websites, crowd-fund, upload music videos, create and sell a variety of merchandise and, most importantly, release and promote their music online.

“Bandcamp was the game-changer for me” says Kidd. “I started using it in 2009 to release my first EP and continue to use it for the majority of my digital sales and for all my online physical sales, gig tickets and merch.”

Bandcamp is an online marketplace where artists can connect with fans, stream their music and sell digital and physical wares. The site allows artists to set their own prices, with the pay-what-you-want model being a popular option.

“Before Bandcamp it was possible to sell direct to fans with Paypal buttons on your website but it’s so much nicer to use their service, and the browsing functionality is really the only successful attempt to build on the best feature MySpace ever had. The ethos is lovely too – artists can recommend other music they like to fans who buy their stuff. It’s a friendly community and I feel proud to be part of it.”

“Jessie J’s home-made YouTube videos bagged her a major label record deal.”

Birthplace of stars

MySpace may have fallen out of favour in recent years, but during its prime, the site was a revolutionary force in the music industry, setting a new precedent for social media and creating a platform that spawned online sensations-turned big pop acts such as Lily Allen.

Other sites have followed this star-making trend: Jessie J’s home-made YouTube videos bagged her a major label record deal, while Mike Posner used a loophole in iTunes U – a free-to-upload channel designed for educational audio content ­– to launch his career.

Famed indie rapper Macklemore met his collaborator Ryan Lewis through MySpace in the mid-noughties. The phenomenal success of their Grammy-winning 2012 album, The Heist, has been hailed by some as proof that indie artists operating in the digital age can now reach global audiences without the clout of majors.

Years of touring and web-based promotion laid the necessary foundations, and staying indie (Macklmeore released The Heist and the albums that preceded it through his own indie label, Macklemore LLC) meant retaining the publishing rights artists normally relinquish to labels, and forgoing the percentage cuts that majors impose on their artists.

But the idea that Macklemore made it alone is misleading. The duo’s success owes much to the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), the independent arm of major label Warner Music Group. For a flat monthly fee, ADA used its acumen and contacts to promote, plug and distribute The Heist, pushing Macklemore into the highest echelons of the mainstream.


Digital distribution

As Kristin Thomson, social researcher and co-director of the Artist Revenue Streams Project points out, even talented, commercially viable artists need experienced partners to achieve that level of impact.

“Independent is often synonymous with ‘Do It Yourself’, but they need to be thought of as separate objectives,” she says. “Thanks to the surge in new [digital] methods to discover, access, listen to, share and purchase music, there are dozens of ways that an independent musician can reach very large audiences. But even with these new platforms and channels, it takes a ton of work and strategic thinking.”

Very few indie artists can access the services of big-league distributors such as ADA, who prefer artists to have had demonstrable success with radio airplay and online sales. But the proliferation of digital distributors has helped indie artists ply their trade online.

“I can get my music everywhere online through AWAL,” says Kidd. “They don’t charge upload and storage fees. It’s quick and easy to upload new releases for distribution to iTunes and all the other online music stores.”

Beatport does similar, and is a trusted source for the electronic dance music scene while Naxos is a favourite for classical musicians.

CD, which started in the late 90s as an online mail-order service, allows unsigned musicians around the globe to make their music available online in the same stores and streaming services used by major and indie labels alike.

“CD Baby was one of the first aggregators to forge a partnership with iTunes,” explains Thomson. The fact that CD Baby sends 91% of the net proceeds from sales back to its artist clients has made it a firm favourite among indie artists.

Other renowned aggregators include TuneCore, ReverbNation and Ditto Music. Each of these digital aggregators represents a massive disruption of the former label-distributor-retailer chain, says Thomson, allowing artists to be paid quickly and transparently.


A radical shift

This is a radical shift from yesteryear, says Thomson – and she should know. In the 90s, together with Jenny Toomey, Thomson founded the much-loved, now-defunct indie label Simple Machines.

“Prior to 2000, if you wanted to sell recorded music on a semi-wide scale, you needed to manufacture discs or vinyl (and probably needed a record label to do that),” she explains. “Then you needed to make a deal with a distributor, which would then act as a middleman between you as the artist/label and the retail record shop. Payments for sales were often slow, and unsold stock could be returned. Clearly, the development of digital music sales via stores like iTunes and Amazon has been revolutionary on its own.”

Thomson says watching the shift into digital distribution has been fascinating. “As someone who used to fill out the UPS log book and take crates of mail-order packages to the post office, digital distribution means no more shipping physical inventory around, no more worrying about what is in stock. Everything is always in print!

“But that’s the downside too; everything is always in print. For a music fan this is great, but for any new label/musician that wants to attract fans to their music, they are no longer just competing for attention with the week’s new releases – they are also competing with just about everything else that was recorded and released in the past 40 years.”

“The Artist Revenue Streams project has identified more than 42 revenue streams for indie musicians.”

Beyond online sales

Artists may be able to sell both digital and physical releases directly from their websites but getting physical stock into shops is still vital for emerging artists says Rich Walker, general manager at respected indie label 4AD.

Finding online distributors such as AWAL may be easy, but convincing reputable distributors your physical releases are profitable is getting harder for indie artists. “You have to see it from a distributor’s point of view: if artists have low demand then the risk is too great,” he explains. “What they do isn’t easy, especially with the likes of Amazon being able to undercut prices so much.”

Focusing on sales alone isn’t an accurate way of gaging the modern indie musician’s income, which can include physical (CD and vinyl) sales, digital sales, merchandise, touring, teaching, session musician work, song-writing for others, streaming royalties (which now count towards chart positions in the UK singles chart, with every 100 streams on sites such as Spotify being treated as equivalent to one single sale) and syncs (letting a company use your music in a TV/radio advert).   

The Artist Revenue Streams research project that Thomson co-runs for the Future of Music Coalition, a US-based non-profit organisation, has identified more than 42 revenue streams. Their 2011 survey of over 5,300 US-based musicians found that 82% were drawing income from a mix of sources, with income varying significantly depending on the role and genre the artist works in.

However, the proliferation of revenue streams doesn’t automatically equal guaranteed profit, Thomson emphasises. “There are many ways that musicians can make money, but it’s certainly not guaranteed that they will.”


The majors still rule

For all the new avenues the digital age has opened up, there are pitfalls – and indie artists are at the mercy of these potholes.

YouTube has been a boon for indie artist, says Kidd. “You used to have to pay to submit videos for MTV and cross your fingers. Now we can upload massive file sizes for nothing and have people stumble across our music.”

Worryingly, this democracy looks set to change. The Worldwide Independent Network, an international consortium that represents indie music labels, claims that Google-owned YouTube is coercing indie labels into signing away their copyright ahead of the site’s upcoming music streaming subscription service, or risk being removed.

In some ways, the digital age – which was meant to democratise – is further entrenching traditional power structures. Hierarchies still exist, says Walker. “Just look at the charts – the majors dominate them as much as ever.”

“Taking out a label still leaves artists to work in a pretty traditional way.”

Label or no label

As Thomson points out, this is because majors own or control licensing for a huge swathe of recorded music history, giving them enormous leverage in the music-technology licensing world.

They have long-established ties with commercial radio, which, in the US, is still the leading way that young music fans discover new music. They also have the contacts, expertise and capital to mount ambitious marketing campaigns, while indie artists and labels operate on much tighter budgets.

But there is room for both majors and indies, believes Thomson. “There are only so many hours in the day,” she says. “Musicians need to be selective about what they can do, and identify where they need help.”

Walker believes labels are necessary and valuable. “Taking out a label still leaves artists to work in a pretty traditional way – employing managers, agents, promo staff, distributors, lawyers, accountants. I don’t know of any act that has truly broken out of that cycle.”

Even Kidd, who is staunchly indie, isn’t anti-label, she says – “just opposed to bad, money-wasting, creativity-dampening labels! There are some great ones out there gathering excellent artists under their umbrellas: Jagjagwar, Secretly Canadian, Cherry Red, Howling Owl, Alcopop. The benefit to artists is the extra energy, strategic skills and contacts that a good label can bring. I think there will always be a place for those things.”

Featured image and inline image 1 courtesy of Avis De Miranda /