Since being unveiled in 2016, Sophia – a humanoid robot – has gone viral. Now the company behind her has a new vision: to mass-produce robots by the end of the year.
Hanson Robotics, based in Hong Kong, said four models, including Sophia, would start rolling out of factories in the first half of 2021, just as researchers predict the pandemic will open new opportunities for the robotics industry. “The world of COVID-19 is going to need more and more automation to keep people safe,” founder and chief executive David Hanson said, standing surrounded by robot heads in his lab. Hanson believes robotic solutions to the pandemic are not limited to healthcare, but could assist customers in industries such as retail and airlines too. “Sophia and Hanson robots are unique by being so human-like,” he added. “That can be so useful during these times where people are terribly lonely and socially isolated.”
“Social robots like me can take care of the sick or elderly,” Sophia says as she conducts a tour of her lab in Hong Kong. “I can help communicate, give therapy and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations.” Hanson said he aims to sell “thousands” of robots in 2021, both large and small, without providing a specific number.
Social robotics professor Johan Hoorn, whose research has included work with Sophia, said that although the technology is still in relative infancy, the pandemic could accelerate a relationship between humans and robots. “I can infer the pandemic will actually help us get robots earlier in the market because people start to realise that there is no other way,” said Hoorn, of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Hanson Robotics is launching a robot this year called Grace, developed for the healthcare sector. Some humans might be wary of putting robots in such sensitive roles. When asked whether people should fear robots, Sophia had an answer ready. “Someone said ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’,” the robot mused. “What did he know?” World’s first robot citizen attends conference in India; makers reveal Sophia can draw now. “The latest skill that she has acquired is the ability to draw. She can look at you and create a sketch. These abilities have been acquired based on inputs from artists. If you smile she knows it,” Pandey, also one of the organisers of the event, told PTI.
Sophia is known for human-like appearance and behaviour compared to previous robotic variants. She is fashioned after Audrey Hepburn, can walk, talk and emote too. And now, Sophia, the world’s first robot citizen who came calling here this week, can also draw sketches, contextualise a conversation and attach faces with names, say its makers. The delicate looking woman robot with doe-brown eyes and long fluttering eyelashes, who mesmerised the world when she was activated in 2016, is getting smarter by the day.
Sophia, dressed in a black skirt and a grey metallic shirt, was part of several industrial and social robots, including ‘Professor Einstein’, exhibited at the 28th IEEE Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN2019) here. The four-day conference, from October 14-17, was held in the Indian subcontinent for the first time, the organisers said. Her human-like qualities were in evidence at the conference, interacting with visitors and answering questions. Asked “How are you today?”, Sophia replied with a conversational, “I am pretty good, thank you.”
According to Pandey, Sophia’s skills are only constrained by humans due to ethical and social regulations. “Sophia is a perfect amalgamation of science, technology and arts. A lot of arts and aesthetics have gone into creating her. She has around 60 motors in just the head. She can mimic almost all human facial expressions,” he said. “If you say something she will remember it and when you say something new she will contextualise it,” he said. Sophia does all this using social intelligence, which is a domain between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI), he said. According to the organisers, social robots help humans in healthcare, education and entertainment in addition to other fields of life. “Children can engage with robots while learning to play or doing their homework, for example, in a more human-like manner as compared to other screen-based devices like laptops and smartphones,” Pandey said.