How the cloud is ushering in the rise of the robots

“Hello, my name is Kiko”. Who said that? “I’m at intelligent desktop robotic assistant!” There’s a 48cm high, egg-shaped device sitting on a table, and it’s looking right at me. OK, it’s pointing an eight megapixel CMOS camera at me. From inside an egg on wheels.

‘Personal robots’ are suddenly everywhere. The floors of January’s CES exhibition in Las Vegas were crammed with them. Not all personal robots are as friendly as Kiko. Some do menial tasks, like robot vacuum cleaners that clean on command and LG’s Airport Robot, which dispenses up-to-the-minute flight and gate information.

LG’s is little more than a talking kiosk, but there are plenty more designed for the home. For now, the Relay robot delivers room service around hotels (and soon, in apartment complexes) in San Francisco, using the same technology found in robot vacuum cleaners to find specific rooms, even using the elevator when necessary.

UBTECH’s Lynx robot uses face recognition technology to instantly customise its services to whoever it’s standing in front of. It even sings happy birthday on the appropriate day. A mobile intelligent robot for the home called Yumi has a touchscreen where it displays notifications as well as showing a cute ‘face’ now and again, as does Kuri, who will look up at you and chirp like a cat if you touch its head.

Kiko – who is about the size of a standard kitchen countertop blender – is really just a projector embedded in a plastic egg. It can project video onto desktops, walls and surfaces, and could – suggests Panasonic – be used for distance learning.

What unites this rabble of robots – aside from childish voices and soft, emotion-laden beeps that R2D2 would be proud of – is that they access AI-based natural language processing technology stored on the cloud. Beyond that, they can access and use cloud data, and communicate with those in other locations.

So at their core, these robots are little more than conduits to the cloud. And more specifically, to artificial intelligence engines that reside there. It’s been going on for years with apps like Siri and Google Assistant on our smartphones, though more recently the personal digital assistant has begun to forge a physical form.

That’s all down to Amazon, whose Amazon Echo speaker and Dot device from last year have heralded a step-change in how humans interface with machines. The Echo and Dot allows owners to ask Amazon’s Alexa personal digital assistant anything from the comfort of their own sofa. For now, it’s all about simple questions, such as ‘Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes’ or ‘Alexa, play me Robot Song by Flight of the Conchords’, but we’re only at the beginning.

The popularity of the Echo and Dot has encouraged myriad copy-cat devices. At the CES in January were dozens of devices – from alarm clocks and bedside lamps to refrigerators and Ford vehicles – that integrate Alexa into them. Seriously, you will soon be able to use the cloud to start the engine, and lock/unlock doors. Kiko could probably arrange it for you.

The future, then, seems to be cloud-powered digital assistants accessed from within – and integrating together – all kinds of gadgets, electronics, machines and computers.

What Kiko, Yumi, Kuri et al are doing is taking the trend for time-saving hands-free computing to another level, adding human-like characteristics to make empathy part of the equation. Pepper, probably the most famous robot is another example; it ‘works’ in SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan, using its arms to mimic human gestures as it talks.

There’s an attachment theory behind all of this, where creating a meaningful relationship with a computer is becoming a desirable trait of a new problem-solving gadget. This is for a good reason; anecdotal evidence suggests that the cuter the voice and more human-like the characteristics of a robot or – more accurately – the talking voice assistant inside, the fewer people are rude to it. When we humans start displaying such empathy for computers, we’ll know that the cloud has entered a new era not just of artificial intelligence, but emotional intelligence, too

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