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Disruptive Technologies available today for Human Machine Interactions

Pepper, the Softbank robot, can tap into the intelligence of IBM Watson proving it (him?) the ability to engage in a fluid conversation. Credit: Softbank

To conclude the set of technologies and technology area that are available today and can lead to market disruption let’s focus on the area of Human Machine Interactions, considering Robotic care companions and Intention decoding algorithms.

Robotic care companions

Japan is probably the most advanced Country in applications of robots in everyday life, with South Korea trailing close. In the Western world robots are broadly used in industrial context but in the mass market area they are seen mostly as entertaining gadget. An exception is those robots that are not perceived as robots, like vacuum cleaners and cooking robots perceived as advanced appliances. I guess the difference in perception is based on the way interaction takes place: vacuum cleaners and cooking robots are interfaced with buttons as a normal appliance, hence they are perceived as such. Talking to an object, on the other hand, feels awkward to most of us, although this is bound to change as we are getting used to talk to objects, like Alexa and television sets. For Western cultures A the idea of having a robot, particularly a humanoid robot, as a companion is seen as an alien proposition.
Softbank, a very interesting company providing communications services in Japan and in other countries has been very active in developing humanoid robots that can be used as companion for kids, elderly and more. Pepper has been designed to be a companion, a social companion, at home and at the office and many Japanese seem to be at ease interacting with it (him?). It is already present in over 140 stores in Japan and should become an engaging presence in 1,000 Nescafe retail points in Japan. By 2017 there are more than 10,000 Pepper around the world, most of them in Japan but also in South Korea, Singapore and California where shops using Pepper are showing an increased sale volume (Pepper does not sell, it attracts more people to the store…).

It has been “adopted” by several Japanese family. When Softbank opened the sales of Pepper on line (back in 2015) they received 1,000 orders in the first minute and were forced to close the website informing customers that production cannot keep up with the orders. The cost is in the range of 1,000-1,500€.

A key feature of Pepper is its capability to understand the emotional level of the person interacting with it and adapting its interaction to fit those emotions. This is at the root of our social behaviour. Its humanoid, child like design, is also creating an empathy with people interacting with it.

Buddy is an open source companion robot designed to become part of your family. Credit: Blue Frog

Buddy is a cute robot, having a sort of puppy feeling, designed to be part of your family. It is based on an open software platform that allows the growth of applications by third parties. It weights around 10 kg and has a battery that support up to 10 hours operation (and it goes back automatically to the charging station when needed). Its 15 spatial sensors allows free range movement, obstacle avoidance and people recognition. Its brain is powered with AI allowing fluid conversation and speaker recognition.

Its set of functionalities grows over time but its basic ones are already impressive. It can serve as a security monitoring, detecting unexpected presence at home, it connects to and orchestrate appliances making your home smarter, it has local and remote social interactions (it can connect to social media, share photos, support video conferencing and telepresence…), can be used as a personal assistant (planning, reminder, alarm clock) and as an elderly support.

It comes in different prices, depending on the accessories requested, ranging from 700 to 1000€. A new advanced version has been presented at CES 2018 winning and innovation award prize.

Care-o-bot is a modular service robot, designed to interact with people and adapt to their needs and to the ambient. Credit: Car-O-Bot

Mojin Robotics (in spite of their name it is a German company) is proposing a modular robot. You can basically design it by assembling several components to fit your needs. Their most recent product, Care-o-bot 4, consist of a base providing moving capabilities that can be configured to move car-like (forward and back) or omnidirectional. On this base you can add a body selecting the kind of functionalities it shall provide, and then you attach one or two arms (or none if you don’t need any). Next step is configuring the sensors and finally select the “head”. It is based on ROS, the Robotic Open Software platform, and offers application programming interfaces and a development kit to allow third parties development.

It has been designed to operate in a home environment (one application is to use it as waiter) and interact with humans using natural language.

There are several other companies active in the social robotic space. I chose these three as example of a continuous evolution form a robot that comes as a close package (Pepper) to one that has open interfaces allowing third parties to develop applications (Buddy) to the one that is modular also in the hardware part.

The key point, however, is that these kind of robots are designed to mingle with us, in shops, at work and in the family. Actually they are designed to become “part of the family”. They have growing capabilities of understanding our emotions and are able to adapt their interaction to the context, both physical and emotional. Some cultures seem to be more prepared to accept socialisation with robots, others are still skeptical or even adverse. History is telling us that cultures evolve and what used to be anathema inthe past may well become mainstream in the future.

This is an area that may actually bring a cultural disruption changing our perception of things and the way we feel about things. Living with a robot you are getting used to talk to, that seems to understand your feelings and have feelings of its own creates a new sort of relation, may be something in between interacting with a human and interacting with an appliance. Would we suffer, emotionally, when it will break down. Will we have second thoughts when we think about replacing it with a new model? Will our feelings compare to the ones we have towards our dog?

Intention decoding algorithms

When interacting with humans we are using our “mirror neurones“. They make us feel what other might feel and this opens the door to social behaviour.

Researchers have been working in re-creating this capability in robots to give them the possibility to develop models of interactions fitting the person they are interacting with.

This technology area is based on “intention decoding algorithms”. Google, Amazon as well as iRobots are using these algorithms to better the interaction with their customers/users.

Interestingly, other companies like Miele and Dyson are increasingly using these algorithms in their mass market goods.

Leading edge research in this field is also going on in the area of “brain decoding”, that is in the analyses of brain electrical activity to predict what the intentions are. This is important to help people with motor disability (paralyses) and communications disabilities, because by intercepting their brain “thoughts” it becomes possible to drive a robot to perform certain actions like “get me a glass of water”, “help me to get seated”.

Of course, the whole sector of eCommerce is very much interested in capturing the intentions of potential buyers to prompt them with the right product and that is why Amazon is so interested in this area.

This is likely to be an unperceived disruption, as it happened with advertisement. It actually disrupted the business, created new markets and companies and changed our perception of products. Intention decoding algorithms may take the expression “read between the lines” to a whole new level changing our expectations when engaging in interaction with things.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.