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)
Rolf Pfeifer, co-founder of the National Robotics Centre in Switzerland, spoke about the future of robotics at NYUAD. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

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

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.”

The biog

Siblings: five brothers and one sister

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What he did to pass the time during the trip: listen to audio books


Name: Xpanceo

Started: 2018

Founders: Roman Axelrod, Valentyn Volkov

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Smart contact lenses, augmented/virtual reality

Funding: $40 million

Investor: Opportunity Venture (Asia)

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Milestones on the road to union


October 26: Bahrain withdraws from a proposal to create a federation of nine with the seven Trucial States and Qatar. 

December: Ahmed Al Suwaidi visits New York to discuss potential UN membership.


March 1:  Alex Douglas Hume, Conservative foreign secretary confirms that Britain will leave the Gulf and “strongly supports” the creation of a Union of Arab Emirates.

July 12: Historic meeting at which Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid make a binding agreement to create what will become the UAE.

July 18: It is announced that the UAE will be formed from six emirates, with a proposed constitution signed. RAK is not yet part of the agreement.

August 6:  The fifth anniversary of Sheikh Zayed becoming Ruler of Abu Dhabi, with official celebrations deferred until later in the year.

August 15: Bahrain becomes independent.

September 3: Qatar becomes independent.

November 23-25: Meeting with Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid and senior British officials to fix December 2 as date of creation of the UAE.

November 29:  At 5.30pm Iranian forces seize the Greater and Lesser Tunbs by force.

November 30: Despite  a power sharing agreement, Tehran takes full control of Abu Musa. 

November 31: UK officials visit all six participating Emirates to formally end the Trucial States treaties

December 2: 11am, Dubai. New Supreme Council formally elects Sheikh Zayed as President. Treaty of Friendship signed with the UK. 11.30am. Flag raising ceremony at Union House and Al Manhal Palace in Abu Dhabi witnessed by Sheikh Khalifa, then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

December 6: Arab League formally admits the UAE. The first British Ambassador presents his credentials to Sheikh Zayed.

December 9: UAE joins the United Nations.

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Seven tips from Emirates NBD

1. Never respond to e-mails, calls or messages asking for account, card or internet banking details

2. Never store a card PIN (personal identification number) in your mobile or in your wallet

3. Ensure online shopping websites are secure and verified before providing card details

4. Change passwords periodically as a precautionary measure

5. Never share authentication data such as passwords, card PINs and OTPs  (one-time passwords) with third parties

6. Track bank notifications regarding transaction discrepancies

7. Report lost or stolen debit and credit cards immediately

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Rangers v Bayer Leverkusen; VfL Wolfsburg v Shakhtar Donetsk; Inter Milan v Getafe

Sevilla v AS Roma; Eintracht Frankfurt or Salzburg v Basel; LASK v Manchester United

The years Ramadan fell in May






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Salah in numbers

€39 million: Liverpool agreed a fee, including add-ons, in the region of 39m (nearly Dh176m) to sign Salah from Roma last year. The exchange rate at the time meant that cost the Reds £34.3m - a bargain given his performances since.

13: The 25-year-old player was not a complete stranger to the Premier League when he arrived at Liverpool this summer. However, during his previous stint at Chelsea, he made just 13 Premier League appearances, seven of which were off the bench, and scored only twice.

57: It was in the 57th minute of his Liverpool bow when Salah opened his account for the Reds in the 3-3 draw with Watford back in August. The Egyptian prodded the ball over the line from close range after latching onto Roberto Firmino's attempted lob.

7: Salah's best scoring streak of the season occurred between an FA Cup tie against West Brom on January 27 and a Premier League win over Newcastle on March 3. He scored for seven games running in all competitions and struck twice against Tottenham.

3: This season Salah became the first player in Premier League history to win the player of the month award three times during a term. He was voted as the division's best player in November, February and March.

40: Salah joined Roger Hunt and Ian Rush as the only players in Liverpool's history to have scored 40 times in a single season when he headed home against Bournemouth at Anfield earlier this month.

30: The goal against Bournemouth ensured the Egyptian achieved another milestone in becoming the first African player to score 30 times across one Premier League campaign.

8: As well as his fine form in England, Salah has also scored eight times in the tournament phase of this season's Champions League. Only Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, with 15 to his credit, has found the net more often in the group stages and knockout rounds of Europe's premier club competition.

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