Robot companions are the ultimate future. Whether it is R2-D2 from Star Wars or Linguo from the Simpsons, these robots embody the future that we all see for humanity. The real question, however, is just how realistically possible is this future? And is it really as far as we think it is?
The answer is yes, it is very much a possibility, and no, it is not as far into the future as we think. To this day, the most advanced humanoid robot that has been built is called Sophia. She was built by China-based company Hanson Robotics in early 2016 and is the closest we have come to building an entirely AI-powered human companion. She has a fully functional body, can have a conversation with people, and even emulate 60 different facial expressions. She is also the first robot to ever gain citizenship of a country.
As exciting as this sounds, she is still very much within the realms of research and far from being available to the common public.
What exactly are Social Robots?
Even though a future with AI humans like Sophia is far, it shows us a glimpse of what the near future has in stock. Presently, there are any start-up companies working on developing social companion robots that we can access today. When it comes to companion robots, there are two main and distinct types.
The first one is helper robots which are designed to replace basic human labor. For example, helper robots can replace restaurant staff or employees at a supermarket.
The second type is emotional robots which are designed to be more emotionally involved with our everyday lives and provide psychological support.
One of the leading companies in this field, SoftBank Robotics, has in fact developed their own helper robot called Pepper. Though not as high-tech as Sophia, Pepper still has functioning arms and can engage in conversation either through speech or his touch screen. Another product from the same company is the NAO robot, a fully articulated and open source robot that can streamline administrative work and be used to engage customers. Such robots can be extremely useful in essentially any industry that requires monotonous manual labor, including retail, healthcare, services, hospitality, and others. What differentiates helper social robots from other machines is the fact that even though their work is very simple, it involves engaging an audience of human beings, which is a lot more challenging than it seems.
The second kind of companion robots comprises of home robots such as the French company Blue Frog’s Buddy robot. Buddy is designed to essentially do whatever is required around the house. It can play with the kids, act as an assistant in the kitchen or in the workplace, and even help the elderly or disabled.
There are many other start-ups across the globe that are also trying the same thing, however, these types of robots are a lot harder to successfully make. This is mostly due to the fact that they need to emotionally engage their target audience which is tougher than one might think since it’s such a nuanced job. This type of AI needs to be responsive to the smallest of whims and whispers and be able to deal with the thousands of human emotions it may come across.
Even Buddy can be classified as both, a helper and an emotional robot, making it much easier to market. An example of a purely emotional robot would be Jibo from Jibo Inc, an American based crowd sourced startup which has developed a robot for purely emotional purposes. The robot doesn’t even have any limbs to perform even basic tasks. All it can do is talk and entertain you. As boring as that sounds, it is programmed to facilitate mental healing and emotional progress as well as act as a true companion to its owner. This type of AI can be particularly helpful in the healthcare industry and seeing the current rise in healthcare and biotechnology, it is only a matter of time before these robots become much more readily available.
Within the realms of emotional companion, robots are the smaller subset of pet robotics. Since pets are a primary source of emotional relief for most people, it makes sense to create robotic pets that do the same. There are many robotic pets on the market today, however, the most sophisticated of the bunch is Aibo from Sony. Creating such a pet is another monumental task perhaps even more difficult than creating humanoid emotional robots, the main reason behind this being speech. Humanoid robots can often make connections through speech and visual stimulus; however, robotic pets do not have this ability. Therefore, they must rely on other senses at their disposal - namely sight, sense, and sounds. This is why we are perhaps a bit farther away from robotic pets than other robot helpers.
What does this mean for the future?
According to a recent study by Oracle and HR advisory and research firm Workplace Intelligence, 82% out of the 12,000 employees surveyed across 11 countries believe that robots can help them in managing stress and are more comfortable discussing their mental health with robots. Such studies showcase the potential and relevance of social companion robots in today’s world.
The future of social robots seems to be bright, particularly in the post COVID era. The wide scope of social robots coupled with the demands of the pandemic is expected to lead to a rise in the acceptance of social robots within society.
As it is, we have many robotic helpers around the house, such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner and the Ring doorbell, which we may not see as social robots, however, they help get us acclimatized to the possibility of the much more integrated world that awaits us. Particularly within the COVID era, when there is more need than ever to decrease human contact wherever possible, helper robots are getting a lot of traction, since they can do just that. It is safe to presume that even in the post COVID era, these robots will be there to stay and become a part of our daily life experience as they serve, engage, and entertain.