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Social robots: companions and helpers of the future

Social robots: companions and helpers of the future

26 Apr 2016

With 1000 Pepper humanoid robots selling each month; Jibo, the world’s first social robot for the home preparing to deliver more than 7500 units in the second quarter; and Buddy, the 'family robot' making its debut in recent months, it is apparent that the nascent field of social robotics is poised to take off at breakneck speed.

Social robots are equipped with facial and voice recognition software that enables them to function as personal assistants: They help individuals navigate their busy, connected lives. Most models feature built-in functions such as texting, schedule planning, taking pictures, making calls, video conferencing and games. Beyond their practical applications, these robots also have the innate ability to read emotions and to interact accordingly, serving as companions and as a source of entertainment.

According to research by market intelligence firm Tratica, almost 100 million consumer robots – which includes robotic vacuums, lawn mowers and pool cleaners as well as social robots – will be shipped worldwide from 2015 to 2020. This represents a jump from 6.6 million units shipped in 2015 to 31.2 million units by 2020. Robot vacuums will account for a chunk of those shipments in the near future, although robotic personal assistants will witness the fastest growth. The report concludes that "the next five years will set the stage for how these robots could fundamentally transform our homes and daily lives".

These consumer robots are powered by artificial intelligence technology developed over the last five years. However, significant breakthroughs are being made each day that could potentially transform science fiction films into reality. 

From science fiction to reality

In Asia, Singapore is leading the way in social robotics research and in December 2015, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Institute for Media Innovation (IMI) unveiled the world’s most human-like robot.

“More and more research is being dedicated to build robots that are more human-like in terms of behaviour and appearance. Experts and scientists from various disciplines such as engineering, psychology and sociology are working together to create robots that react to human voices as well as social cues,” says professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, the director of IMI.

Professor Magnenat Thalmann’s expertise and research into the area of virtual humans is now being translated into reality. Her research – coupled with specialist input from other fields – has culminated in the development of the world’s first socially autonomous robot.

“Social robotics is an area undertaken by scientists and researchers keen to study and meld social interaction with psychology. It goes beyond hardware. There have been some real advances in the last decade, and more research is being invested into developing machines that interact naturally,” she says.

Modelled after professor Magnenat Thalmann, IMI’s robot, named Nadine, sports dewy skin, brunette hair and is incredibly lifelike. She currently functions as IMI’s receptionist, meeting and greeting visitors ­– she is able to make eye contact and shake hands. In addition, she can recognise former guests and initiate conversations based on what they have said before. Unlike typical robots, Nadine also displays a distinct personality as well as mood and emotions, including sadness, happiness and even anger.


Professor Magnenat Thalmann says: “Unlike functional robots programmed to perform specific repetitive tasks often used in commercial and industrial settings, social robots like Nadine actually recognise and distinguish between people, deciphering speech and analysing their gestures. During interaction, social robots mimic the social capacity of human beings. Nadine is a complex social entity as she has memory, and some real-world awareness through vision and the capacity to react according to the situation.”

Intelligent software similar to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortnana – comprising speech recognition and a database of knowledge – powers Nadine. She has a dual nature: on one hand, she is a computer capable of  speedily processing big data, and  applying rigourous logic to these data. On the other hand, she is also a human-like social robot, acting and reacting like a real person.

According to professor Magnenat-Thalmann, Nadine has been able to fulfil her receptionist role in all respects but there is still some way to go. “Sometimes she does not fully understand what is being said and gives answers out of social context, which can result in humorous situations,” she says.

Professor Magnenat-Thalmann adds that all visitors to IMI have reacted to Nadine positively. “The majority of people who meet Nadine are truly fascinated with her,” she says.

According to professor Magnenat-Thalmann, thanks to further advances in robotics, sparked by technological improvements in silicon chips, hardware, sensors and actuators and computational power, social robots such as Nadine will gradually become a familiar presence in offices and homes in the not-too-distant future. Scientists predict that this new technology will also eventually become a viable alternative to providing care for children and the elderly.

Designed for altruism

Professor Magnenat-Thalmann emphasises that social robots are ultimately designed to fulfil altruistic proposes. She envisions that they have the potential to evolve further and should not be deployed as substitutes for human labour in industry.

“Ultimately, we want Nadine to be part of a revolution in providing care and serving as social companions to any adult or child; more particularly, those with disabilities. Two to three years from now, I hope to see more Nadines or similar social robots deployed in schools, at homes as personal companion, or in care homes helping to improve the quality of life for those in need,” she says, revealing that the IMI plans to build social robots that resemble children.

The professor highlights that social robots like Nadine are actively acquiring data all the time to improve their responses.

“The next challenge for my team is to develop multiparty interaction in Nadine – interacting with people in a group.  That means that Nadine should know when to speak and to whom, follow the conversation of many people, and say the right thing at the right moment to the right person.”

Professor Magnenat-Thalmann believes that even though they can help in many practical ways, social robots can never completely replace social interaction with other human beings.

"But owing to the fact that developed nations are ageing rapidly and are faced with a shrinking workforce, the truth is, having some companionship – even if it is in the form of a machine that only simulates rather than feels real emotion – is better than none for mental health and well-being,” she adds.