LAS VEGAS—Wandering around CES, every so often you’ll come across a horde of curious spectators. If and when you do, there’s a pretty good chance they’re gawking at some kind of robot. From faceless robovacs to fridge-like laundry bots, Las Vegas has them all. Including robot strippers.
Seeing all this robot diversity in one place can be jarring. Out in the wild, it’s easy to forget the advances robotics has made in just the last few decades. Unless you work in a factory or are a techie with a particularly fat wallet, you’re not likely to find one at home or in your day-to-day life. But this diversity also underscores two of the biggest unanswered questions facing technology today: What role do we want robots to play in our society and how “human” should they be?
At CES 2018, I got the chance to spend some time with Kuri, the adorable Pixar-esque robot from Mayfield Robotics, and Sophia, a hyperrealistic android from Hanson Robotics. They’re both billed as social robots—as in, their main function is to interact and develop relationships with humans. But while their overall goal might be the same, they embody two very different approaches.
Take Sophia. She resembles a slightly less polished Ava from the 2015 film Ex Machina. She has an incredibly lifelike face—her skin has texture, her lips are glossed, and if you look closely, she even has teeth that look to be made of porcelain or some other ceramic material. You can ask her how her day is, or to tell you a joke. But at the same time, her hyperrealistic face is offset by the fact that you can see the wires in the back of her skull and hear the whirr of her motors.
I chatted with Sophia one-on-one, and while I was impressed by the sheer feat of engineering and programming involved, I can’t help but feel I took a short jaunt to the Uncanny Valley. After asking her to tell me a joke, she looked directly into my eyes and my brain glitched. I knew I was speaking to a robot but for the briefest of moments, when her eyes met mine, I forgot she wasn’t human. Later, in the cab ride back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease. It wasn’t until I started writing this that I understood why: There’s a reason they say the eyes are the window to the soul. Because she looks so human, I was expecting to see one in Sophia.
With Kuri, on the other hand, there’s no question she’s a robot. She resembles Eva from Pixar’s Wall-E, with a pinch of R2-D2’s sass and BB-8’s adorability. And like everyone’s favorite astromechs, Kuri only speaks in bleeps and bloops. If you ask her to tell you a joke, she’ll tell you a story in friendly chirps and laugh to herself. And like Jibo, another cute social robot, if you pat Kuri on the head, she’ll purr and lean into your touch.
After a few minutes, you can’t help but feel the same sort of affection for Kuri that you might a beloved pet. She might not understand a late-night session of soul bearing over a pint, but her mannerisms are human enough that it doesn’t matter. It’s recognizable when Kuri meanders around obstacles with an endearing waddle. We implicitly understand when she’s happy or confused based on her eye shape or the tone of a bleep or bloop.
Long story short, it’s easier to love something that looks like a robot, but acts human.
How Do Robots Help Mankind?
A few months ago, I was testing Jibo in the PCMag Labs. The most common question I got from curious colleagues and friends was, “what does he do?”
That’s a question asked of all robots on display at CES. And it ranges from robots that can do lots of things, to robots that can do only one thing. The FoldiMate, for instance, is a $1,000 robot that can do exactly one thing: fold your laundry. Some robots here are built for the express purpose of teaching children how to code. Others, like Keecker, are great at playing multimedia. Jibo (below) was sort of like an Alexa with physical form and an impressive ability to twerk.
Asked what Sophia’s purpose was, her creator, Dr. David Hanson, had a more lofty goal in mind. “We see Sophia as being very useful in medical therapy. One of her early sister prototypes, Eva, proved very useful in autism therapy and medical simulation. She’s also useful as a platform for ongoing research, like making AI smarter.”
Dr. Hanson went on to explain that the ultimate goal is to create a general purpose robot with artificial intelligence capable of imagination and creativity. “If we can create a more general purpose robot, then it can be used for many different purposes,” he explained. “That’s where you start to see the revolution. Once you had personal computers, you suddenly had a larger platform.”
Kuri’s purpose is a little closer to home. The Mayfield Robotics team has given her the task of being your family’s videographer. She’ll capture short moments throughout the day that you can then review in the app. Over time, she’ll learn the type of content you like.
“Kuri is doing something that no one else will do for you,” says Sarah Osentoski, Mayfield Robotics COO. “You don’t have someone in your home that will capture those moments.”
Robots as Friends, Not Murder Machines
Why does any of this matter?
It matters because every few months, a video from Boston Dynamics will make the rounds on social media. Despite their astounding technological and engineering proficiency, these robots inspire headlines sprinkled with words like “terrifying” and “nightmare-inducing.” In the media, we’re periodically reminded that one day, the robots will take all our jobs. The narrative is fairly adversarial, bordering on cautionary tale of human hubris. If we’re not careful, we will create the very things that destroy us.
In Japan, robot culture is a bit different. First and foremost, they’re viewed as benevolent helpers and that’s apparent in some of the most iconic Japanese robots. Think of Paro, the robotic seal developed to soothe dementia patients. Or Asimo, the cheery astronaut-esque bot developed by Honda who currently lives at the Miraikan in Odaiba. Or Sony’s Aibo robot dog. Or the bizarrely cute Tomatan, a robot that will feed you tomatoes as you run. These robots are all meant to have a positive relationship with humans, and looking at them, you’d think them incapable of a violent robot uprising.
So far, every roboticist I’ve spoken to is keenly aware of the burden on their shoulders to instill positive character traits in their bot’s “character bible.” Dr. Hanson likened the process as a sort of parenthood. “We have to instill a sense of ethics,” he said. “And wherever possible, super ethics.” Likewise, Kuri’s personality was crafted around the three pillars of humility, earnestness, and curiosity.
All this to say, there’s going to be a point where creators, governments, and consumers will have to choose between these two narratives. Hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later. Because if the showroom floor at CES is any indication, robots aren’t going anywhere.
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