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

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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


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