– Social robots: The robots we dreamed of as kids are becoming a reality
Robots will become increasingly commonplace in our homes soon. Not just performing useful tasks; they will also be engaging with us in many different ways and we are likely to create emotional bonds with them. But first, they will need to understand the subtleties and contradictions of human behaviour and be able to learn from us. Enter social robots, AI-powered assistants with social skills.
This evening, a robot is teaching your kid how to code at home. You are just coming back from the dentist's office, where you were greeted by a robot receptionist. You catch up with your elderly parents over the phone but their robot assistant has already reminded them to take their medication.
Up to now, the most sophisticated robots we are dealing with on a daily basis are vacuum cleaners but in a few years, this will be a highly likely scenario. Bots are developing amazing interactive capabilities and performing more useful tasks than ever before.
Home voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Home and comprehensive cloud-based AIs connected to our everyday devices through the Internet of Things (IoT) are increasingly present in our everyday lives. But social robots will add a "human layer" to AIs.
Robots that will regularly engage with people at home, workplaces, schools and hospitals are not far off. To properly design them, roboticists are training artificial intelligence (AI) with research on human behaviour and social and emotional intelligence. Social robots must command plain language, master communication skills and develop an ability to understand our motivations, read our intentions and anticipate our needs. They need to read our faces and emotions, interpret our non-verbal language, decode complex everyday sentences, learn from feedback and respond accordingly. No small feat.
Social robots also need to feel appealing to humans in order to create the desire to interact with them. If we just feel they obey a set of pre-programmed commands, our mind will just consider them as "regular" devices or "things", even if somewhat more sophisticated ones. To be considered more than "things", robots must show some agency and respond to our behaviours, moods and intentions.
AIs already make decisions based on data, they have speech recognition functions and the ability to learn. Advanced AIs' algorithms are trained with psychological and social behavioural inputs so they can properly respond to our feelings and needs and speak conversationally.
What will be social robots used for?
Social robots will take on increasingly complex social roles: concierges, helpers, teammates at work, coaches and therapists and ultimately friends and companions. They will be able to understand our feelings, show us affection, provide advice and be capable of improvising. Some will even grow a unique personality adapting to their owners' feedback.
One of the main tasks of social robots will be providing comfort and companionship to the growing elderly population. Paro robotic seal, for instance, has proved to increase the quality of life and satisfaction levels in older adults with dementia. They will also help them with everyday tasks, such as reminding them to take their medication.
But it's not only the elderly who will be taking advantage of these robotic social features. Social robots will help us fight increasing loneliness and social isolation in general. As the leader of Great Britain's General Practitioners stated in 2017, being lonely can be as bad for someone's health as having a long-term illness.
Socially skilled robots will also provide a manageable and secure social experience to children with autism, will educate children in general and be playmates and pets to them.
But robot friends and assistants are also going to be present in every other aspect of our daily life.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, will work alongside us at our workplace. Healthcare (where AIs and medical robots are progressively more prevalent in diagnosing diseases and surgery), education, retail trade, information and communication, accommodation, food service and even such human endeavours as arts and entertainment are some of the work fields that will be taken over by social robots. Robotic technology will also take the lead in unsafe work environments or at unpleasant work shifts.
At home, social robots will be helpers in the kitchen, control home automation devices and will contribute to the safety of our home.
Social Robots already among us
The near future looks promising, but what examples of social robots can we find today?
Maybe the most famous social robot right now is SoftBank Robotics' Pepper.
Pepper welcomes customers and interacts with them at stores, provides information and shopping assistance and can even dance and crack jokes. But Pepper is also Jack-of-all-trades: it has already worked at two Belgian hospitals as a receptionist, helps with check-ins at hotels, provides customer service at airports, supports branding and loyalty programs and can be found at fast-food chains. And they are still working on new ways to customize Pepper's abilities.
If Pepper's appearance resembles that of a robot kid, PARO Therapeutic Robot (developed by AIST, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) looks like a plush baby seal.
PARO's goal is to replicate animal therapy effects by stimulating older patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia at nursing homes, helping them relax, relieving mental stress and promoting the communication between patients and their caregivers.
Kiki, by Zoetic AI, is another robot pet described as an "AI Personality Engine", as it has a unique personality and singular character traits that are developed through interacting with its owners and adapting to them.
Lynx and Walker by Ubtech, Mabu, by Catalia Health, Loomo, by Segway Robotics, SAM, by Luvozo PBC, Vivatech's Buddy, Romeo and NAO, also by SoftBank Robotics, Furhat by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Sanbot by Qihan technology, Temi, by Temi USA and the very well known Honda's Asimo humanoid robot that also flaunts social skills... Are just a few other examples.
What kind of robotic companions will be beside us in the next decade?