In 2020, robots are no longer a thing of the future. People are no longer impressed by news about self-driving cars, Roombas can now be found next to old-fashioned vacuum cleaners. 80% of car manufacturing is conducted by robots. But was it exactly the dream of science fiction and futurists?
Dreams and reality
In most media pieces from the end of the 20th century, be that movies or books, robots have a very distinct anthropomorphic appearance. Simply put, they try to appear human-like. For example, replicants from “Blade Runner” (1982), Number 5 from “Short Circuit” (1986), Maria from “Metropolis” (1927), and our personal favorite, the Terminator from James Cameron’s 1984 movie of the same name.
Unlike movies, reality shows us a lot of actual areas of application for robotics. There are industrial robots (kuka, fanuc, ABB), medical robots (da-vinci, rehab), domestic robots (window cleaners, pool cleaners, Roomba), robots for education (lego, robbo, trick). Of all of these industries, the only robots that actually need humanoid features for their work are service robots.
Sometimes, it disappoints people. We had decades of media-influenced impressions of human-like robots walking on two legs, able to communicate just like real people would and on top of that serve us tirelessly, follow each and every order from humans, who are tired of doing the dirty job. Instead, a huge box with the porthole does our laundry, a box with shelves inside of it does our dishes and instead of a robot-cleaner, we have what is pretty much a large puck on wheels riding around our house.
Let’s talk about it. In order to orient in X, Y, Z axis, wield, and manufacture parts in a production setting, the robots don’t really require emotions or human-like facial features.
In order to clean floors in your apartment, it is essential for the robot to be small, quick, and navigate properly. You don’t actually need a broom and bucket to clean floors.
There’s more. The ‘Da Vinci’ robot performs operations on the level of complexity where human hands become the most ineffective aspect of the whole operation. Human hands are large and they require a lot more cuts made in the human body for a successful surgery. Da Vinci was created to take out what once was the most important aspect of each surgery ― the human hands. To date, these robots have already saved thousands of peoples’ lives.
In conclusion, a humanoid appearance for the robot that provides precise and mechanical operations is unnecessary; it’s expensive, it’s inessential, it doesn’t make the work more effective or ensures better quality of it.
Now, what do we need the service robots for? For starters, they can perform different functions related to the service industry: issue line tickets, give out entrance passes or promo coupons, fill out and scan documents, answer questions, help with navigation, etc.
Service robotics is a relatively new industry. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), by 2021 this market will be estimated at $15.4 bln. Generally, robots in this area should be able to attract attention, answer questions, recognize faces, and perform overall simple and repetitive tasks. Service robots are necessary to help with menial work, optimize the workforce, exclude human factors from the service.
Right now there are three large companies that operate in the service robotics industry: SoftBank Robotics from Japan (the company behind Pepper), Qihan from China, and Promobot from Russia. Each robot that these companies develop can move its arms, express emotions during a conversation. Overall, they have a lot of distinctly human-like features.
But why do we keep making robots look more like humans?
Aside from simple tasks such as consulting, chatting, or printing passes and receipts, one big task of a service robot is to attract a customer. It is crucial in determining how effective the robot is and if the client gets interested in what the robot offers.
Robot’s appearance greatly affects how people react to it and how they evaluate their experience of communication. In 1978, a Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori conducted research related to humans’ emotional response to robots’ appearance. The results were good at first: the more robot appears human-like, the better reaction it receives, only until a certain point.
Once the robot’s appearance becomes too human, for example when it features human skin and hair, the reaction plummets to negative. This phenomenon was called the Uncanny Valley.
Graph of the Uncanny Valley
This graph is used by every single service robotics company. Once the line reaches the first peak, people react to the robot positively. This is where people enjoy chatting with the robot: they buy services that it offers and they complete operations that it provides.
Aside from financial, it also brings a lot of indirect benefits. A person takes a picture of the robot and then posts it on social networks, spreading the word about the robot. Local media picks up any news about new technologies, same with bloggers. All of that results in thousands of mentions of the company, it brings traffic, it makes the company that has a robot appear technologically advanced. Without the robot, this can be obtained only with massive media campaigns that cost much more than the robot itself and not always result in success. With robots all of that can be obtained for free, not to mention the primary functionality is still there.
There are lots of developers who attempt to overcome the uncanny valley and reach the right side of it. According to Masahiro Mori, when it happens people will react to this robot at least twice as positively. There are several companies in the world that try to create such a humanoid robot, in particular as a service assistant.
The most popular humanoid robot is of course Sophia. She already became a Saudi Arabia citizen and went to numerous robotics events in Europe and Asia. I mean, Will Smith himself asked her out! The wide public did not react to the robot all that positively, though ― most people were turned off and even scared of Sophia. She quickly appeared in the Uncanny Valley territory.
So now what? Any luck with overcoming the Valley?
For the first time, it actually appeared to be possible just recently. A company called Real-Doll started to produce robots under the name Harmony, and they actually appear more to the right side of the valley. The public reacted positively and the company found a lot of profit in the development of Harmony.
These robots are not used in the service industry, however… Well, technically they are, but let’s say it’s a b2c business rather than a b2b one. They are used in fulfilling the physical needs of their clients, especially related to those of sexual nature. If you think that’s awkward, imagine how I’ll be explaining it to my son in the future. If this article isn’t some good training.
All jokes aside, these urges actually became a big motivator for a lot of developments in the robotics industry. It is expected that this will also result in the widespread use of humanoid robots across other industries.
We are now entering the future where in a lot of communication industries the usual human-driven workforce will be replaced by robotic employees. In a lot of ways, people won’t be able to distinguish them from themselves. This will change the whole perspective of this industry and remove human factors from a lot of things: robots will never get tired, never get sick, never take paid leaves or go on vacations. They will always be in the perfect mood, ready to serve.
A lot of people are afraid of this new world, and even stand against it, and rightfully so. What’s important to remember is that over the course of history, humanity has always chosen the path of making life easier and processes go quicker. It is only a matter of time when it happens again. After all, traffic lights functions were performed by humans once.