Robotics pioneer Samer Al Moubayed, CEO at Furhat Robotics, has designed a human-like, social robot that can communicate with us humans as we do with each other. He makes the case for its place in our lives.
The robots are here and, no, they’re not out to kill you. They’re out to help you. Think about it, you’ve got a washing machine – that’s a robot. When you’re asking Siri or Alexa questions and they give you intelligent answers, that’s AI. Now, imagine the year is 2050 and you’re heading to your next job interview. Instead of a stranger who’s probably had a bad week interviewing hundreds of candidates trying to grill you, what if you came across a robot who was perfectly capable of telling that you’re nervous and immediately tried to calm you? If Samer Al Moubayed, Co-Founder and CEO of Swedish tech firm Furhat Robotics, delivers on his promise, that’s exactly the sort of service his social robots could deliver. At Hong Kong’s recent RISE conference, he talked Hive Life through a future in which robots are our friends and not foes.
Photo Credit: Stephen McCarthy/RISE via Sportsfile
Developed in 2016, Furhat claims to be the world’s most advanced, human-like social robot. With an animated face atop its compact, white plinth, this robot can maintain eye contact, speak, listen and even show emotion. Even more human-like, it offers simulations of multiple personalities that can interact in real-time with people. Having been designed with a host of human personalities and reactions built-in, this means it can take on ‘human’ roles such as training employees, helping with customer service or even teaching. Earlier in 2018 in a partnership between Furhat Robotics and German railway IT service provider Deutsche Bahn Systel, Furhat was tasked with playing the role of FRAnny – a multilingual concierge helping travellers find their way at Frankfurt Airport by answering questions related to departure times, delays, directions to gates, etc. So successful was the trial that the Deutsche Bahn Systel is now exploring the option of deploying FRAnny to assist passengers at all major train stations during the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
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Whilst Furhat may exist thanks to cutting-edge technology, its name came from a rather less scientific approach. “When we first launched the prototype, it didn’t have a top. It just had a mask and cables coming out of it. We wanted to showcase it and people liked the idea, but they were distracted by the head. So we’d placed someone’s hat from the office on the head. We showed it in a museum in London and everyone was like, ‘Have you seen the robot with a fur hat?’ and the name just stuck. Now, when we think about it, fur is something that people associate with safety and warmth and these are the values that we need to associate with robots.”
Photo Credit: Stephen McCarthy/RISE via Sportsfile
Following on from this idea that robots should be less intimidating, Samer and his team are now working with companies like TNG, a Swedish recruiting firm, to develop the world’s first unbiased interview robot – Tengai. Why? “It typically takes about seven seconds for someone to make a first impression and about five to 15 minutes for a recruiter to make a decision. We want to challenge that,” says Samer. He believes that their freedom from bias means that robots can prompt more honest and open conversations and hopes that, in cases like this, robots will help ease human interaction, rather than hinder it. “We [as a society] have built a world that is extremely asocial and that has resulted in more isolation than connection. We’ve been using our phones to build relationships with others, but when you’re sick, you want someone to look you in the eye and ask how you’re feeling. At Furhat, we choose to build technology that’s not only focused on optimising efficiency, but also on social connection, comfort and trust. We’re turning a new page,” he explains.
Inspired by science fiction, Samer goes on, “We build software that’s really inspired by how people behave. In movies like iRobot when the robot winks to Will Smith’s character, it’s a sign of trust. It is an extremely social, important tool for building relationships. When we went to the moon, took a picture of our planet and realised we were a very tiny speck in the universe, that became a moment of self-reflection. Building a robot is really a self-reflection on humanity. With automation, we’re suddenly talking about a lot of important things like, What’s the purpose of having a job? How should we take care of each other? These aren’t questions about robots or machines. These are questions about us and the way we’ve been living our lives.”
When it comes to the future, Samer believes, “Robots will be very social, culturally aware and adaptive to the person. They will quickly detect if you’re stressed and talk to you in a different way and explain things better. They will build new personalities and learn from data collected from interactions. Soon enough, they will be able to learn by shadowing people.” And, around them, he predicts that a whole ecosystem will be built of developers trying to make each robot as adaptive as possible to the huge variety of our needs. “They will be an economic dashboard similar to the smartphone or the personal computer where you have a device and millions of people around the world are learning how to develop applications for it. They are the ones that will be the main driver for the deployments. Think of it as the phone: you have millions of apps on the App Store and very few of them were built by the creators of the phone.” For Samer, as he works with interdisciplinary teams from robotics, academia and I/O psychology industries to rapidly innovate, these developments hope to drive towards a world in which a bridge is built between humanity and AI – and where the sum of us together might just make us greater than our parts.
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