In ‘Her’, a film released earlier this year, the main protagonist falls in love with an operating system, so advanced that they are able to form an intimate, complex relationship. Whilst this touching story belongs in the realms of science fiction, human relationships with robots are fast developing. Recent progressions in the design of humanoid robots are showing how useful and beneficial these technologies may be to a range of people. Trust and collaboration with robots is therefore important in allowing these benefits to thrive.
Jibo for instance, founded by Cynthia Breazeal, is the first family robot that is designed to sit at the heart of homes and play an integral, empathetic role in families technological lives. Whilst performing routine functions such as relaying messages, taking photographs by voice prompt and acting as a personal reminder, Jibo was created with the purpose of bringing companionship to these daily routines. Jibo freely communicates with the family breathing heart into these, usually, solitary tasks. Announced early July at a crowd funding campaign, Jibo’s popularity has inspired thousands who have collectively risen much more than the target funding, helping him to become a commercial reality by early 2016.
Taking a more physical approach to robotics than Jibo, Baxter was originally designed to support in the manufacturing industry with precise, dexterous arm movements to complete routine jobs. Unveiled back at the TED event in 2013 by creator Rodney Brooks, Baxter, like Jibo, was created as a collaborative partner between man and machine. Baxter understands his surroundings, making human safety a priority. For example, his eyes advise his human colleagues by moving in the direction he is about to move his arms. People may easily show and teach Baxter where and what they want him to move by simply directing his arms, rather than requiring a complex understanding of programming. Both Baxter and Jibo free individuals from technological understanding, acting as a useful, humanised mediator between people and technology. This may absolve people from certain tasks allowing them more time to be productive elsewhere in the workplace or at home.
Whilst a useful companion in industry Baxter has recently taken steps out of the factory and is being designed to assist individuals in their homes. Quadriplegic David Whalen is working with John Wen of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York to transform Baxter into an assistive robot, capable of carrying out basic tasks for people such as Whalen. Baxter’s dexterous movements make him well adapted to this role, allowing Whalen to pick up dropped items and retrieve items from shelves. Whalen can control Baxter through a mouthpiece as the robot moves around on a wheelchair. The applications for Baxter are seemingly endless as John Wen plans to use the robot to help doctors perform surgery via video link and even the possibility of tending to plants on space stations. Rodney Brooks believes humanoid robots such as Baxter may be paramount in helping the ageing population, providing both the companionship of Jibo and physical nature of Baxter to carry shopping or even act as a personal chauffeur.
It is important that humanity’s relationship with robots is strong should technology such as Jibo and Baxter become a success. This is being tested by a robot named Hitchbot whose aim is to travel across Canada from Nova Scotia to Victoria BC by hitchhiking. Hitchbot’s simple design and facial expressions are relying on the kindness and trust of humans to complete this 6000 kilometre journey. Inspiring the minds of many, Hitchbot has already travelled a significant part of its journey making it to Wikwemikong, over 2000 kilometres from home.
Like automatic doors in Star Trek, which once belonged purely in science fiction, the developments of humanoid robots are stepping out of science fiction, providing a wealth of exciting, collaborative opportunities. They are allowing welcoming, friendly alternatives to daily gadgets, such as Jibo, or carrying out physical tasks in the home as with Baxter. Hitchbot is showing how, with just a simple smile, humans can engage with robots and allow these technologies to flourish.
How else might humanoid robots become integrated into our homes?