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#436252 After AI, Fashion and Shopping Will ...

AI and broadband are eating retail for breakfast. In the first half of 2019, we’ve seen 19 retailer bankruptcies. And the retail apocalypse is only accelerating.

What’s coming next is astounding. Why drive when you can speak? Revenue from products purchased via voice commands is expected to quadruple from today’s US$2 billion to US$8 billion by 2023.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D printing are converging with artificial intelligence, drones, and 5G to transform shopping on every dimension. And as a result, shopping is becoming dematerialized, demonetized, democratized, and delocalized… a top-to-bottom transformation of the retail world.

Welcome to Part 1 of our series on the future of retail, a deep-dive into AI and its far-reaching implications.

Let’s dive in.

A Day in the Life of 2029
Welcome to April 21, 2029, a sunny day in Dallas. You’ve got a fundraising luncheon tomorrow, but nothing to wear. The last thing you want to do is spend the day at the mall.

No sweat. Your body image data is still current, as you were scanned only a week ago. Put on your VR headset and have a conversation with your AI. “It’s time to buy a dress for tomorrow’s event” is all you have to say. In a moment, you’re teleported to a virtual clothing store. Zero travel time. No freeway traffic, parking hassles, or angry hordes wielding baby strollers.

Instead, you’ve entered your own personal clothing store. Everything is in your exact size…. And I mean everything. The store has access to nearly every designer and style on the planet. Ask your AI to show you what’s hot in Shanghai, and presto—instant fashion show. Every model strutting down the runway looks exactly like you, only dressed in Shanghai’s latest.

When you’re done selecting an outfit, your AI pays the bill. And as your new clothes are being 3D printed at a warehouse—before speeding your way via drone delivery—a digital version has been added to your personal inventory for use at future virtual events.

The cost? Thanks to an era of no middlemen, less than half of what you pay in stores today. Yet this future is not all that far off…

Digital Assistants
Let’s begin with the basics: the act of turning desire into purchase.

Most of us navigate shopping malls or online marketplaces alone, hoping to stumble across the right item and fit. But if you’re lucky enough to employ a personal assistant, you have the luxury of describing what you want to someone who knows you well enough to buy that exact right thing most of the time.

For most of us who don’t, enter the digital assistant.

Right now, the four horsemen of the retail apocalypse are waging war for our wallets. Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Now, Apple’s Siri, and Alibaba’s Tmall Genie are going head-to-head in a battle to become the platform du jour for voice-activated, AI-assisted commerce.

For baby boomers who grew up watching Captain Kirk talk to the Enterprise’s computer on Star Trek, digital assistants seem a little like science fiction. But for millennials, it’s just the next logical step in a world that is auto-magical.

And as those millennials enter their consumer prime, revenue from products purchased via voice-driven commands is projected to leap from today’s US$2 billion to US$8 billion by 2023.

We are already seeing a major change in purchasing habits. On average, consumers using Amazon Echo spent more than standard Amazon Prime customers: US$1,700 versus US$1,300.

And as far as an AI fashion advisor goes, those too are here, courtesy of both Alibaba and Amazon. During its annual Singles’ Day (November 11) shopping festival, Alibaba’s FashionAI concept store uses deep learning to make suggestions based on advice from human fashion experts and store inventory, driving a significant portion of the day’s US$25 billion in sales.

Similarly, Amazon’s shopping algorithm makes personalized clothing recommendations based on user preferences and social media behavior.

Customer Service
But AI is disrupting more than just personalized fashion and e-commerce. Its next big break will take place in the customer service arena.

According to a recent Zendesk study, good customer service increases the possibility of a purchase by 42 percent, while bad customer service translates into a 52 percent chance of losing that sale forever. This means more than half of us will stop shopping at a store due to a single disappointing customer service interaction. These are significant financial stakes. They’re also problems perfectly suited for an AI solution.

During the 2018 Google I/O conference, CEO Sundar Pichai demoed the Google Duplex, their next generation digital assistant. Pichai played the audience a series of pre-recorded phone calls made by Google Duplex. The first call made a reservation at a restaurant, the second one booked a haircut appointment, amusing the audience with a long “hmmm” mid-call.

In neither case did the person on the other end of the phone have any idea they were talking to an AI. The system’s success speaks to how seamlessly AI can blend into our retail lives and how convenient it will continue to make them. The same technology Pichai demonstrated that can make phone calls for consumers can also answer phones for retailers—a development that’s unfolding in two different ways:

(1) Customer service coaches: First, for organizations interested in keeping humans involved, there’s Beyond Verbal, a Tel Aviv-based startup that has built an AI customer service coach. Simply by analyzing customer voice intonation, the system can tell whether the person on the phone is about to blow a gasket, is genuinely excited, or anything in between.

Based on research of over 70,000 subjects in more than 30 languages, Beyond Verbal’s app can detect 400 different markers of human moods, attitudes, and personality traits. Already it’s been integrated in call centers to help human sales agents understand and react to customer emotions, making those calls more pleasant, and also more profitable.

For example, by analyzing word choice and vocal style, Beyond Verbal’s system can tell what kind of shopper the person on the line actually is. If they’re an early adopter, the AI alerts the sales agent to offer them the latest and greatest. If they’re more conservative, it suggests items more tried-and-true.

(2) Replacing customer service agents: Second, companies like New Zealand’s Soul Machines are working to replace human customer service agents altogether. Powered by IBM’s Watson, Soul Machines builds lifelike customer service avatars designed for empathy, making them one of many helping to pioneer the field of emotionally intelligent computing.

With their technology, 40 percent of all customer service interactions are now resolved with a high degree of satisfaction, no human intervention needed. And because the system is built using neural nets, it’s continuously learning from every interaction—meaning that percentage will continue to improve.

The number of these interactions continues to grow as well. Software manufacturer Autodesk now includes a Soul Machine avatar named AVA (Autodesk Virtual Assistant) in all of its new offerings. She lives in a small window on the screen, ready to soothe tempers, troubleshoot problems, and forever banish those long tech support hold times.

For Daimler Financial Services, Soul Machines built an avatar named Sarah, who helps customers with arguably three of modernity’s most annoying tasks: financing, leasing, and insuring a car.

This isn’t just about AI—it’s about AI converging with additional exponentials. Add networks and sensors to the story and it raises the scale of disruption, upping the FQ—the frictionless quotient—in our frictionless shopping adventure.

Final Thoughts
AI makes retail cheaper, faster, and more efficient, touching everything from customer service to product delivery. It also redefines the shopping experience, making it frictionless and—once we allow AI to make purchases for us—ultimately invisible.

Prepare for a future in which shopping is dematerialized, demonetized, democratized, and delocalized—otherwise known as “the end of malls.”

Of course, if you wait a few more years, you’ll be able to take an autonomous flying taxi to Westfield’s Destination 2028—so perhaps today’s converging exponentials are not so much spelling the end of malls but rather the beginning of an experience economy far smarter, more immersive, and whimsically imaginative than today’s shopping centers.

Either way, it’s a top-to-bottom transformation of the retail world.

Over the coming blog series, we will continue our discussion of the future of retail. Stay tuned to learn new implications for your business and how to future-proof your company in an age of smart, ultra-efficient, experiential retail.

Want a copy of my next book? If you’ve enjoyed this blogified snippet of The Future is Faster Than You Think, sign up here to be eligible for an early copy and access up to $800 worth of pre-launch giveaways!

Join Me
(1) A360 Executive Mastermind: If you’re an exponentially and abundance-minded entrepreneur who would like coaching directly from me, consider joining my Abundance 360 Mastermind, a highly selective community of 360 CEOs and entrepreneurs who I coach for 3 days every January in Beverly Hills, Ca. Through A360, I provide my members with context and clarity about how converging exponential technologies will transform every industry. I’m committed to running A360 for the course of an ongoing 25-year journey as a “countdown to the Singularity.”

If you’d like to learn more and consider joining our 2020 membership, apply here.

(2) Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve also created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is Singularity University’s ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs — those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

(Both A360 and Abundance-Digital are part of Singularity University — your participation opens you to a global community.)

This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.

Image Credit: Image by Pexels from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436209 Video Friday: Robotic Endoscope Travels ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, WA, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Kuka has just announced the results of its annual Innovation Award. From an initial batch of 30 applicants, five teams reached the finals (we were part of the judging committee). The five finalists worked for nearly a year on their applications, which they demonstrated this week at the Medica trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany. And the winner of the €20,000 prize is…Team RoboFORCE, led by the STORM Lab in the U.K., which developed a “robotic magnetic flexible endoscope for painless colorectal cancer screening, surveillance, and intervention.”

The system could improve colonoscopy procedures by reducing pain and discomfort as well as other risks such as bleeding and perforation, according to the STORM Lab researchers. It uses a magnetic field to control the endoscope, pulling rather than pushing it through the colon.

The other four finalists also presented some really interesting applications—you can see their videos below.

“Because we were so please with the high quality of the submissions, we will have next year’s finals again at the Medica fair, and the challenge will be named ‘Medical Robotics’,” says Rainer Bischoff, vice president for corporate research at Kuka. He adds that the selected teams will again use Kuka’s LBR Med robot arm, which is “already certified for integration into medical products and makes it particularly easy for startups to use a robot as the main component for a particular solution.”

Applications are now open for Kuka’s Innovation Award 2020. You can find more information on how to enter here. The deadline is 5 January 2020.

[ Kuka ]

Oh good, Aibo needs to be fed now.

You know what comes next, right?

[ Aibo ]

Your cat needs this robot.

It's about $200 on Kickstarter.

[ Kickstarter ]

Enjoy this tour of the Skydio offices courtesy Skydio 2, which runs into not even one single thing.

If any Skydio employees had important piles of papers on their desks, well, they don’t anymore.

[ Skydio ]

Artificial intelligence is everywhere nowadays, but what exactly does it mean? We asked a group MIT computer science grad students and post-docs how they personally define AI.

“When most people say AI, they actually mean machine learning, which is just pattern recognition.” Yup.

[ MIT ]

Using event-based cameras, this drone control system can track attitude at 1600 degrees per second (!).

[ UZH ]

Introduced at CES 2018, Walker is an intelligent humanoid service robot from UBTECH Robotics. Below are the latest features and technologies used during our latest round of development to make Walker even better.

[ Ubtech ]

Introducing the Alpha Prime by #VelodyneLidar, the most advanced lidar sensor on the market! Alpha Prime delivers an unrivaled combination of field-of-view, range, high-resolution, clarity and operational performance.

Performance looks good, but don’t expect it to be cheap.

[ Velodyne ]

Ghost Robotics’ Spirit 40 will start shipping to researchers in January of next year.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Unitree is about to ship the first batch of their AlienGo quadrupeds as well:

[ Unitree ]

Mechanical engineering’s Sarah Bergbreiter discusses her work on micro robotics, how they draw inspiration from insects and animals, and how tiny robots can help humans in a variety of fields.

[ CMU ]

Learning contact-rich, robotic manipulation skills is a challenging problem due to the high-dimensionality of the state and action space as well as uncertainty from noisy sensors and inaccurate motor control. To combat these factors and achieve more robust manipulation, humans actively exploit contact constraints in the environment. By adopting a similar strategy, robots can also achieve more robust manipulation. In this paper, we enable a robot to autonomously modify its environment and thereby discover how to ease manipulation skill learning. Specifically, we provide the robot with fixtures that it can freely place within the environment. These fixtures provide hard constraints that limit the outcome of robot actions. Thereby, they funnel uncertainty from perception and motor control and scaffold manipulation skill learning.

[ Stanford ]

Since 2016, Verity's drones have completed more than 200,000 flights around the world. Completely autonomous, client-operated and designed for live events, Verity is making the magic real by turning drones into flying lights, characters, and props.

[ Verity ]

To monitor and stop the spread of wildfires, University of Michigan engineers developed UAVs that could find, map and report fires. One day UAVs like this could work with disaster response units, firefighters and other emergency teams to provide real-time accurate information to reduce damage and save lives. For their research, the University of Michigan graduate students won first place at a competition for using a swarm of UAVs to successfully map and report simulated wildfires.

[ University of Michigan ]

Here’s an important issue that I haven’t heard talked about all that much: How first responders should interact with self-driving cars.

“To put the car in manual mode, you must call Waymo.” Huh.

[ Waymo ]

Here’s what Gitai has been up to recently, from a Humanoids 2019 workshop talk.

[ Gitai ]

The latest CMU RI seminar comes from Girish Chowdhary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on “Autonomous and Intelligent Robots in Unstructured Field Environments.”

What if a team of collaborative autonomous robots grew your food for you? In this talk, I will discuss some key advances in robotics, machine learning, and autonomy that will one day enable teams of small robots to grow food for you in your backyard in a fundamentally more sustainable way than modern mega-farms! Teams of small aerial and ground robots could be a potential solution to many of the serious problems that modern agriculture is facing. However, fully autonomous robots that operate without supervision for weeks, months, or entire growing season are not yet practical. I will discuss my group’s theoretical and practical work towards the underlying challenging problems in robotic systems, autonomy, sensing, and learning. I will begin with our lightweight, compact, and autonomous field robot TerraSentia and the recent successes of this type of undercanopy robots for high-throughput phenotyping with deep learning-based machine vision. I will also discuss how to make a team of autonomous robots learn to coordinate to weed large agricultural farms under partial observability. These direct applications will help me make the case for the type of reinforcement learning and adaptive control that are necessary to usher in the next generation of autonomous field robots that learn to solve complex problems in harsh, changing, and dynamic environments. I will then end with an overview of our new MURI, in which we are working towards developing AI and control that leverages neurodynamics inspired by the Octopus brain.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435773 Video Friday: Roller-Skating Quadruped ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

We got a sneak peek of a new version of ANYmal equipped with actuated wheels for feet at the DARPA SubT Challenge, where it did surprisingly well at quickly and (mostly) robustly navigating some very tricky terrain. And when you're not expecting it to travel through a muddy, rocky, and dark tunnel, it looks even more capable:

[ Paper ]

Thanks Marko!

In Langley’s makerspace lab, researchers are developing a series of soft robot actuators to investigate the viability of soft robotics in space exploration and assembly. By design, the actuator has chambers, or air bladders, that expand and compress based on the amount of air in them.

[ NASA ]

I’m not normally a fan of the AdultSize RoboCup soccer competition, but NimbRo had a very impressive season.

I don’t know how it managed to not fall over at 45 seconds, but damn.

[ NimbRo ]

This is more AI than robotics, but that’s okay, because it’s totally cool.

I’m wondering whether the hiders ever tried another possibly effective strategy: trapping the seekers in a locked shelter right at the start.

[ OpenAI ]

We haven’t heard much from Piaggio Fast Forward in a while, but evidently they’ve still got a Gita robot going on, designed to be your personal autonomous caddy for absolutely anything that can fit into something the size of a portable cooler.

Available this fall, I guess?

[ Gita ]

This passively triggered robotic hand is startlingly fast, and seems almost predatory when it grabs stuff, especially once they fit it onto a drone.

[ New Dexterity ]

Thanks Fan!

Autonomous vehicles seem like a recent thing, but CMU has been working on them since the mid 1980s.

CMU was also working on drones back before drones were even really a thing:

[ CMU NavLab ] and [ CMU ]

Welcome to the most complicated and expensive robotic ice cream deployment system ever created.

[ Niska ]

Some impressive dexterity from a robot hand equipped with magnetic gears.

[ Ishikawa Senoo Lab ]

The Buddy Arduino social robot kit is now live on Kickstarter, and you can pledge for one of these little dudes for 49 bucks.

[ Kickstarter ]

Thanks Jenny!

Mobile manipulation robots have high potential to support rescue forces in disaster-response missions. Despite the difficulties imposed by real-world scenarios, robots are promising to perform mission tasks from a safe distance. In the CENTAURO project, we developed a disaster-response system which consists of the highly flexible Centauro robot and suitable control interfaces including an immersive telepresence suit and support-operator controls on different levels of autonomy.

[ CENTAURO ]

Thanks Sven!

Determined robots are the cutest robots.

[ Paper ]

The goal of the Dronument project is to create an aerial platform enabling interior and exterior documentation of heritage sites.

It’s got a base station that helps with localization, but still, flying that close to a chandelier in a UNESCO world heritage site makes me nervous.

[ Dronument ]

Thanks Fan!

Avast ye! No hornswaggling, lick-spittlering, or run-rigging over here – Only serious tech for devs. All hands hoay to check out Misty's capabilities and to build your own skills with plenty of heave ho! ARRRRRRRRGH…

International Talk Like a Pirate Day was yesterday, but I'm sure nobody will look at you funny if you keep at it today too.

[ Misty Robotics ]

This video presents an unobtrusive bimanual teleoperation setup with very low weight, consisting of two Vive visual motion trackers and two Myo surface electromyography bracelets. The video demonstrates complex, dexterous teleoperated bimanual daily-living tasks performed by the torque-controlled humanoid robot TORO.

[ DLR RMC ]

Lex Fridman interviews iRobot’s Colin Angle on the Artificial Intelligence Podcast.

Colin Angle is the CEO and co-founder of iRobot, a robotics company that for 29 years has been creating robots that operate successfully in the real world, not as a demo or on a scale of dozens, but on a scale of thousands and millions. As of this year, iRobot has sold more than 25 million robots to consumers, including the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, the Braava floor mopping robot, and soon the Terra lawn mowing robot. 25 million robots successfully operating autonomously in people's homes to me is an incredible accomplishment of science, engineering, logistics, and all kinds of entrepreneurial innovation.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from CMU’s own Sarah Bergbreiter, on Microsystems-Inspired Robotics.

The ability to manufacture micro-scale sensors and actuators has inspired the robotics community for over 30 years. There have been huge success stories; MEMS inertial sensors have enabled an entire market of low-cost, small UAVs. However, the promise of ant-scale robots has largely failed. Ants can move high speeds on surfaces from picnic tables to front lawns, but the few legged microrobots that have walked have done so at slow speeds (< 1 body length/sec) on smooth silicon wafers. In addition, the vision of large numbers of microfabricated sensors interacting directly with the environment has suffered in part due to the brittle materials used in micro-fabrication. This talk will present our progress in the design of sensors, mechanisms, and actuators that utilize new microfabrication processes to incorporate materials with widely varying moduli and functionality to achieve more robustness, dynamic range, and complexity in smaller packages.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433386 What We Have to Gain From Making ...

The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.

Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.

Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.

As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”

The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.

Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.

The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?

Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.

“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.

It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.

Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.

Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”

Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.

The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”

During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.

“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”

Image Credit: Soul Machines Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431315 Better Than Smart Speakers? Japan Is ...

While American internet giants are developing speakers, Japanese companies are working on robots and holograms. They all share a common goal: to create the future platform for the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart homes.
Names like Bocco, EMIEW3, Xperia Assistant, and Gatebox may not ring a bell to most outside of Japan, but Sony, Hitachi, Sharp, and Softbank most certainly do. The companies, along with Japanese start-ups, have developed robots, robot concepts, and even holograms like the ones hiding behind the short list of names.
While there are distinct differences between the various systems, they share the potential to act as a remote control for IoT devices and smart homes. It is a very different direction than that taken by companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple, who have so far focused on building IoT speaker systems.
Bocco robot. Image Credit: Yukai Engineering
“Technology companies are pursuing the platform—or smartphone if you will—for IoT. My impression is that Japanese companies—and Japanese consumers—prefer that such a platform should not just be an object, but a companion,” says Kosuke Tatsumi, designer at Yukai Engineering, a startup that has developed the Bocco robot system.
At Hitachi, a spokesperson said that the company’s human symbiotic service robot, EMIEW3, robot is currently in the field, doing proof-of-value tests at customer sites to investigate needs and potential solutions. This could include working as an interactive control system for the Internet of Things:
“EMIEW3 is able to communicate with humans, thus receive instructions, and as it is connected to a robotics IT platform, it is very much capable of interacting with IoT-based systems,” the spokesperson said.
The power of speech is getting feet
Gartner analysis predicts that there will be 8.4 billion internet-connected devices—collectively making up the Internet of Things—by the end of 2017. 5.2 billion of those devices are in the consumer category. By the end of 2020, the number of IoT devices will rise to 12.8 billion—and that is just in the consumer category.
As a child of the 80s, I can vividly remember how fun it was to have separate remote controls for TV, video, and stereo. I can imagine a situation where my internet-connected refrigerator and ditto thermostat, television, and toaster try to work out who I’m talking to and what I want them to do.
Consensus seems to be that speech will be the way to interact with many/most IoT devices. The same goes for a form of virtual assistant functioning as the IoT platform—or remote control. Almost everything else is still an open ballgame, despite an early surge for speaker-based systems, like those from Amazon, Google, and Apple.
Why robots could rule
Famous android creator and robot scientist Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro sees the interaction between humans and the AI embedded in speakers or robots as central to both approaches. From there, the approaches differ greatly.
Image Credit: Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories
“It is about more than the difference of form. Speaking to an Amazon Echo is not a natural kind of interaction for humans. That is part of what we in Japan are creating in many human-like robot systems,” he says. “The human brain is constructed to recognize and interact with humans. This is part of why it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind as well as the AI mind itself. In a way, you can describe it as the difference between developing an assistant, which could be said to be what many American companies are currently doing, and a companion, which is more the focus here in Japan.”
Another advantage is that robots are more kawaii—a multifaceted Japanese word that can be translated as “cute”—than speakers are. This makes it easy for people to relate to them and forgive them.
“People are more willing to forgive children when they make mistakes, and the same is true with a robot like Bocco, which is designed to look kawaii and childlike,” Kosuke Tatsumi explains.
Japanese robots and holograms with IoT-control capabilities
So, what exactly do these robot and hologram companions look like, what can they do, and who’s making them? Here are seven examples of Japanese companies working to go a step beyond smart speakers with personable robots and holograms.
1. In 2016 Sony’s mobile division demonstrated the Xperia Agent concept robot that recognizes individual users, is voice controlled, and can do things like control your television and receive calls from services like Skype.

2. Sharp launched their Home Assistant at CES 2016. A robot-like, voice-controlled assistant that can to control, among other things, air conditioning units, and televisions. Sharp has also launched a robotic phone called RoBoHon.
3. Gatebox has created a holographic virtual assistant. Evil tongues will say that it is primarily the expression of an otaku (Japanese for nerd) dream of living with a manga heroine. Gatebox is, however, able to control things like lights, TVs, and other systems through API integration. It also provides its owner with weather-related advice like “remember your umbrella, it looks like it will rain later.” Gatebox can be controlled by voice, gesture, or via an app.
4. Hitachi’s EMIEW3 robot is designed to assist people in businesses and public spaces. It is connected to a robot IT-platform via the cloud that acts as a “remote brain.” Hitachi is currently investigating the business use cases for EMIEW3. This could include the role of controlling platform for IoT devices.

5. Softbank’s Pepper robot has been used as a platform to control use of medical IoT devices such as smart thermometers by Avatarion. The company has also developed various in-house systems that enable Pepper to control IoT-devices like a coffee machine. A user simply asks Pepper to brew a cup of coffee, and it starts the coffee machine for you.
6. Yukai Engineering’s Bocco registers when a person (e.g., young child) comes home and acts as a communication center between that person and other members of the household (e.g., parent still at work). The company is working on integrating voice recognition, voice control, and having Bocco control things like the lights and other connected IoT devices.
7. Last year Toyota launched the Kirobo Mini, a companion robot which aims to, among other things, help its owner by suggesting “places to visit, routes for travel, and music to listen to” during the drive.

Today, Japan. Tomorrow…?
One of the key questions is whether this emerging phenomenon is a purely Japanese thing. If the country’s love of robots makes it fundamentally different. Japan is, after all, a country where new units of Softbank’s Pepper robot routinely sell out in minutes and the RoBoHon robot-phone has its own cafe nights in Tokyo.
It is a country where TV introduces you to friendly, helpful robots like Doraemon and Astro Boy. I, on the other hand, first met robots in the shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and struggled to work out why robots seemed intent on permanently borrowing things like clothes and motorcycles, not to mention why they hated people called Sarah.
However, research suggests that a big part of the reason why Japanese seem to like robots is a combination of exposure and positive experiences that leads to greater acceptance of them. As robots spread to more and more industries—and into our homes—our acceptance of them will grow.
The argument is also backed by a project by Avatarion, which used Softbank’s Nao-robot as a classroom representative for children who were in the hospital.
“What we found was that the other children quickly adapted to interacting with the robot and treating it as the physical representation of the child who was in hospital. They accepted it very quickly,” Thierry Perronnet, General Manager of Avatarion, explains.
His company has also developed solutions where Softbank’s Pepper robot is used as an in-home nurse and controls various medical IoT devices.
If robots end up becoming our preferred method for controlling IoT devices, it is by no means certain that said robots will be coming from Japan.
“I think that the goal for both Japanese and American companies—including the likes of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple—is to create human-like interaction. For this to happen, technology needs to evolve and adapt to us and how we are used to interacting with others, in other words, have a more human form. Humans’ speed of evolution cannot keep up with technology’s, so it must be the technology that changes,” Dr. Ishiguro says.
Image Credit: Sony Mobile Communications Continue reading

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