When I talk to people about the potential of robots and artificial intelligence, I often see a shadow of fear cross their faces. They are thinking of Hollywood scenarios like The Terminator, iRobot and Ex Machina. People are fearful that the world will be ravaged by homicidal robots. It takes a while to explain that human sentient robots are still very much the phantom of film directors’ imaginations and that we are still a very long, long, long way off replicating the most complex organism we have yet to discover in the Universe - the human brain. The robots and artificial intelligence applications that do exist are far narrower in their capabilities.
But then people worry they might lose their businesses or their jobs - even skilled professionals like surgeons. Consider the recent case of Sedasys machine; a healthcare robot that could dispense anaesthetics effectively, around the clock and cost efficiently. The Sedasys machine received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2013 and was introduced to hospitals in 2015. But the American Society of Anesthesiologists campaigned relentlessly to have it withdrawn on the grounds that robots can’t really be safe. The pharmaceutical company behind Sedaysys, Johnson & Johnson, reluctantly have now done so, no doubt to protect their more traditional business. But all around the world - and in particular in developing nations - we are struggling to deliver effective healthcare. Robots provide a potential solution to shortages of skills, time and money.
Robots and AI are struggling for acceptance. They have a problem - an emotional problem: it seems they are just not loveable. They're the big scary ogres that lurk in the shadows waiting to grab us, our businesses and our jobs…. For these technologies
Some are trying to embody AI into human form. After all, where there is a human face, we find it hard to resist thinking that there is a human mind. Some are more successful than others: BINA48 has impressive capability to converse with humans but only exists as a disembodied head; Honda’s Asimo has very advanced movement capabilities but still is ponderous; and the human lookalike robot ReplieeQ2 has triggered the highest level of mirror neuron activity in humans, but still feels a bit ‘uncanny valley’: disconcertingly human but not quite human.
But don’t they say that love is blind? Perhaps being human-looking is not necessary. Consider Pepper, a robot developed by Aldebaran and Japanese mobile giant, Softbank. Not only can it interact with humans, it is enabled with an ‘endocrine-type multi-layer neural network’ - it can pick up on human emotions. Combined with its touch sensors and cameras, it can respond to the emotions of people and its mood is displayed on the tablet-sized screen on its chest. According to its creators, it can ‘feel’ joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness. It can even sigh. But it is its cuteness, with big eyes, baby nose and small height at only four feet tall and roller balls instead of legs, that makes it really loveable. So may be love isn’t blind in this case, just wanting a more canny valley.
It seems to me that perhaps even Pepper is trying too hard to be loved. An effective approach - at least for now - is to rejoice in the fact that a robot might look different to us and have fun with it. Consider the Henn-na Hotel (which translates as "Strange Hotel") in Nagasaki, Japan, which has a front desk staffed by robots and animatronic dinosaurs. People love the quirkiness of the experience. Indeed, the hotel sector has taken to robot and AI enabled concierges in a big way. The Hilton McLean in Virginia, USA, has an IBM Watson enabled robot concierge called Connie who can provide information to guests. Edwardian Hotels, in the UK, has launched a ‘virtual host’ service called Edward. Edward will check you in before you even get to the hotel, get you spare towels or reserve your dinner. Starwood Hotels ‘hired’ the robotic butler Botlr to help free up front desk staff’s time at the Aloft in Cupertino, Silicon Valley.
It seems that perhaps the secret to robots and AI succeeding faster is to think less about creating the perfect human replicant and to think more about creating engaging loveable experiences. You don’t need to wait till you can’t tell the difference between the robot and the human, there is a lot that can be done with robots and artificial intelligence right now. There are applications to make cars, wait tables, care for the elderly, answer phones, crunch data, give advice, write copy, provide customer service etc etc. At the Digital Disruption School we are encouraging people to look at the opportunities of technologies like robots and AI right now, consider how to apply these to create loveable experiences and go change the world for the better. And this Valentine’s Day what’s not to love about that?