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Meet Sophia and Grace

Sophia, a humanoid robot has been speaking at conferences, responding questions and captivating her audience… Image credit: ProMotivate / Hanson Robotics

Hong Kong based Hanson Robotics have been developing humanoid robots for several years. Thanks to progress in technology, particularly in AI, their products have now a real life semblance that opens up several areas of application. I am not talking so much about their physical shape, the facial mimic is good including crow’s feet (watch the clip) but you can tell at first glance that it is not a human being. I am talking more of their conversational capabilities and the feeling of understanding and empathy they can provide. Notice that I am using the word “feeling” I am not saying that they understand nor that they feel anything like empathy.  All these sensations are our projection on them.

The pandemic has widened the opportunity window for humanoid robots, although they are still plagued by a very high price tag (over 20,000$ and some can go well beyond 100,000$). There are “mini” robots that are selling for 99$ but they are toys…

Interestingly, Hanson Robotics are trying to explore ways to dramatically reduce the cost by making their software open stimulating emerging Countries, like Bangladesh, to develop their own version of the robot.
The voice interaction is mediated by Google that provides the software needed to understand what people ask and to identify an appropriate answer. Technology in this area (chatbots) has evolved significantly and it is now sufficiently mature to be used in the mass market (see Alexa, Siri…).

Clearly software is an essential component in these humanoid robots. The question is whether the software by itself would be sufficient, i.e. if an interaction with a smartphone, a tablet would deliver an acceptable feeling to people or if you really need a physical presence in human shape (the cost for this will be decrease but over longer time frame and a significant cost will remain). Virtual reality might also provide a way to get rid of the physical component, mirroring it in the cyberspace but again it remains to be seen its acceptability.

This is a sensitive issue, particularly as these robots are aiming at application for elderly users where a physical presence would make all the difference…. also considering that this community is not used to “live” in the cyberspace.

Sophia was the first humanoid robot to get a citizenship status (in Saudi Arabia) and now it is no longer alone. There are several other humanoid robots getting ready for the market, like Grace (watch the clip), designed to act as a nurse (not providing medical care but only companionship).

One of the characteristics that makes this new generation of humanoid robots so interesting is that they have the capability of learning and remembering all interactions. They can come back to a patient and as a real nurse pick up the conversation from the point they left it, really giving the impression that they care about that person. If the topic in a previous “visit” was on the grandchild that was preparing for a music contest, in a subsequent visit Grace would ask, without any prompt: “How did the contest go?”.

In this sense, Grace can be way better than I am in remembering “stuff”!

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.