Humanoid Robots – the Challenge of Creating the Perfect Butler

By Anna Krogh Søndergaard

In these days, the use of robots and robot technology is becoming more and more diverse. The use is from personal therapists, to units for communication, or to robot maids. However, the developers are faced with challenges when building robots that move and think independently. How far are we with robot technology, what is ethical correct, and where do we face the biggest challenges?

In our podcast “People First – in a digital age” from Internet Week Denmark 2017, journalist Anders Høeg Nissen interviewed people who took part in the festival. He talked with Lykke Brogaard Bertel who’s postdoc in robot technology at Aalborg University, and Søren Tranberg, entrepreneur and founder of the company Brainbotics. Brainbotics purpose is to study and research on robots, drones, and artificial intelligence.

We have made an article from their conversation. Would you rather listen to their conversation? Find it here.

Humanoid robots versus android robots

Int: What is the difference between humanoid robots and android robots?

Lykke: Humanoid robots are social robots. They have arms and legs and often also eyes, but they don’t look exactly like us. Android robots on the contrary look like us with skin, hair and so.

Int. Where do we meet the humanoid robots and what are they capable of?

Søren: We meet them in different contexts. In everyday life at museums, at conferences, libraries and in shops. Also, there are humanoid robots in the military. People often ask me which abilities the robots have. If they are able to bring coffee and so. But the kind of robots that I’m mostly working with are used as units for communication. They walk and talk and show text on a screen. They have social and service competencies rather than transporting stuff around.  

[Robots] need to be able to control the area they’re in. However, the nature of human beings is chaotic which is difficult to incorporate in a computer programme. That’s also why it’s so hard to create these butlers that are moving independently around. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A lot of single inventions are overcoming this issue.”

www.momentstudio.dk, +45 28724405, martin@momentstudio.dk

Human chaos is robots’ biggest challenge

Int: I guess quite a lot of people would like to have a butler. Like a robot with the abilities to iron and fold clothes. But is it true that these types of tasks are actually the most difficult to incorporate in a robot?

Søren: Yes, many years of research show that the aspects we consider as easy actually are the difficult ones. New advanced breakthroughs within artificial intelligence and robots are taking place all the time. However, there still is a lot of simple things that robots can’t manage. They are not good at moving around independently in unpredictable surroundings, and they are working best when the same things are happening every day. It isn’t possible to overcome this limitation yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.

“In order for robots to be more human-like, they need to be autonomous and take interaction into their own hands.”

Int: So that might be the reason why the biggest development of robots is happening at factories and warehouses where it’s possible to drag a line in the floor?

Søren: Yes, that’s why robots work so well in such surroundings. They need to be able to control the area they’re in. The nature of human beings is chaotic which is difficult to incorporate in a computer programme. That’s also why it’s so hard to create these butlers that are moving independently around. But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. A lot of single inventions are overcoming this issue.

“Robot technology can open up our understanding of social behavior. What is communication, and how do we support people who are having a hard time communicating? In the future, robots will be used more and more as pedagogic and therapeutic tools.”

Int: How is it possible to interact with robots today? How far are we?

Lykke: At the moment robots’ behavior is pre-programmed. They are commanded to do certain things which is far away from the way we interact as human beings. In order for robots to be more human-like, they need to be autonomous and take an interaction into their own hands.

www.momentstudio.dk, +45 28724405, martin@momentstudio.dk

Therapeutic robots have huge potential

Int: Should we regard the robots as humans or as artificial actors until the day we learn to create them perfectly?  

Lykke: A good idea would be to allow ourselves to embrace the unfinished process more than we do now.  A lot of research on robot interaction focus on the mistakes the robot is making when it interacts with humans. Instead, we should focus on what we learn.  Robot technology can open up our understanding of social behavior. What is communication, and how do we support people that are having a hard time communicating? In the future, robots will be used more and more as pedagogic and therapeutic tools. The interconnection between social behavior and programming is very relevant, I think. We need to understand that behavior is something we are designing while we’re interacting. This area has huge potential, but it’s also dealing with a lot of ethical dilemmas.

Robots dedicated to one function is the future

Int: Will we one day be able to create complex robots with the ability to move and think independently – or is such a development too hard and expensive?

“I think we will see more dedicated robots in the future. Robots that are created to do one or a few tasks”

Søren: It’s difficult to say. I’ve been surprised by some of the quantum leaps in terms of robot development. But that is also necessary when attempting to incorporate human and social behavior in a robot. So often we have been surprised by new inventions. Autonomous cars for instance. 10 years ago you wouldn’t believe it would be our reality, but soon it is. It’s hard to say where it will end, but there is definitely a lot of things going on these years.

Lykke: I think we will see more dedicated robots in the future. Robots that are created to do one or a few tasks. There has been a tendency to think that robots should be able to do everything – work as a butler and therapist at the same time. But the technology is getting cheaper, and I think we will see many robots with different purposes and functions in the future.