UAE symposium hears about the possibilities – and limits – of social robotics

Will you be ordering your future lattes from a robot barista? Speaking to students at NYUAD, a robotics pioneer says that robots are not quite as advanced as you might think

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Rolf Pfeifer, co-founder of the National Robotics Centre in Switzerland, visiting Chair Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tng University, and a scientific coordinator at ÔLiving with RobotsÕ  present at the event held in New York University, Saadiyat Island, on February 3, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
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The next generation of robotic humanoids may come out of an unlikely workspace – the local bar or coffee house.

Dr Rolf Pfeifer, one of the pioneers of social robotics, said he is working on developing a “robolounge” where humans can order drinks from the next generation of service robots.

“We’re not trying to replace humans, but enhance human experience,” Dr Pfeifer told experts and students gathered at New York University Abu Dhabi for the third joint UAE symposium on social robotics on Sunday. “The goal is to design and make available a space where people can experience the future, not only talk about it.”

But anyone fearing these artificially intelligent machines might one day take over their jobs should think again, he said.

“I think we might even need more human personnel in the robot bar than if we didn’t have the robot because there are many things they can’t do very well that we need humans for,” said Dr Pfeifer. “For example, we have a place where they put empty dishes, empty glasses, empty bottles. When this is full, a human has to come and has to replace them.”

In his keynote address about living with robots and coping with the artificial intelligence hype, Dr Pfeifer delivered a sobering assessment of modern-day social robots, noting they are far from successfully performing even basic motor-sensory tasks, let alone getting close to taking over our jobs.

“We really have this discrepancy between what people expect robots can do and what they actually can do,” said Dr Pfeifer, who gained international recognition in 2013 with his invention Roboy, a childlike humanoid that could simulate facial emotions.

In his opinion, the hype over artificial intelligence incited by the mass media has distorted the public’s understanding or appreciation of the complexities behind social robotics.

“I think the media are sort of overestimating the abilities of current systems,” said Dr Pfeifer, who co-founded the National Robotics Center in Switzerland and retired as director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Zurich. “We typically think robots are much more intelligent than they actually are.”

Most humanoids or social robots – like his own 2013 invention, Roboy – have had limited mobility, locomotion and manipulation skills in the real world. In essence, he said, they have had "the functionality of an iPhone."

“Pepper (a robot designed to live with humans and to read emotions) can tell you about the latest features on an espresso machine, but he cannot make coffee for you,” said Dr Pfeifer.

Roboy was dubbed the “most advanced humanoid in the world” when it debut from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The bright-white robot had large blue eyes and small lips that could be lit up in various shapes to represent its ‘mood.’ But, despite the hype, “it couldn’t do anything” meaningful, he said.


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Dr Pfeifer hopes to address these shortcomings with the robolounge, which will feature one or two redesigned robots that will be built of soft materials and have higher functionality that will allow them to interact with each other and the service area. The robolounge is expected to be commercially available in about one year, he said.

“We have to view the entire bar as an ecosystem, and that’s what provides the functionality, not the robot in isolation,” said Dr Pfeifer. “I think we should fulfill the expectations of the public. We should add functionality beyond speech and facial expression. If you really want to fulfill the expectations of the people, you need sensory motor functionality.”