Designed To Interact: Humanoid Robots Show Promise
It’s official: Robots have come to the Smithsonian. As of this past spring, humanoid robots (built to resemble the human body) can be found at a number of Smithsonian locations, including Smithsonian Castle, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
What prompted the arrival of these robots to the Smithsonian? The new additions were donated from SoftBank Robotics and integrated into museums with the hope of increasing visitor engagement with installations and exhibits. This class of robots, called “Pepper,” have received a lot of excitement from Smithsonian visitors since their installment.
Each Pepper robot can tell stories, answer questions, dance, and take selfies with visitors. Although they are not comprehensively equipped to answer all visitor questions, Pepper robots have added a personal touch to the museum experience by encouraging visitors to interact with certain exhibits. By placing Pepper robots in less-frequented locations within museums, the Smithsonian hopes to increase interest in exhibits that are more often overlooked by visitors. And so far, it seems to have worked. In one gallery, visitors have doubled since a Pepper robot was installed there.
So, what is Pepper and what can it do? According to Aldebaran Robotics (a French robotics company acquired by SoftBank Robotics), Pepper is “an emotional robot, not a functional robot for domestic use with dishwasher or vacuum cleaner functionalities.”Developed in 2014, Pepper robots are adept at facial recognition and natural spoken language processing in a number of languages. Pepper can even recognize basic human emotions, using hints such as facial expressions and tone of voice. As SoftBank Robotics describes on its website: Pepper is “a robot designed to interact with humans.”
Pepper is not the only humanoid robot designed with this goal in mind. Another class of robot, called NAO, was developed before Pepper and is currently sold by SoftBank Robotics. NAO also appears humanoid and is marketed as a “programmable personal teaching assistant.”Like Pepper, NAO was designed with the goal of human interaction, but is primarily used for education and research purposes. NAO robots can form relationships with students and even remember past interactions and information about individuals.
For the last few years, NAO has been making headlines for effectively engaging with children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) to help them improve their social skills.Some researchers observed that children were excited to interact with the robots, and for children with ASD, it may actually be easier for them to interact with robots because there are fewer social stressors.
NAO robots have also shown promise in the healthcare space. Specifically, NAO robots using ZORA software have garnered attention in the way they form relationships with the elderly in senior care facilities.These humanoid robots excel at offering companionship. They are not facilitating healthcare treatment, or replacing human caregivers, but rather, providing something a little less tangible: moral support. According to researchers’ observations, these interactions can be meaningful. At an assisted living community in France, some elderly community members see the robot as a small child, cradling it.Strikingly, more than 200 assisted living communities worldwide now have NAO robots.To better understand these interactions, a three-year research project co-sponsored by the European Union and Japan is currently investigating the use of humanoid robots in assisted living care.
The full potential of humanoid robots in different sectors is still being explored. SoftBank Robotics markets Pepper for use in Retail, Finance, Healthcare, Government, Tourism, and Education and Research sectors. Pepper has so far been installed in a few commercial capacities, primarily in Japan, where SoftBank Robotics is based. Notably, the Japanese restaurant chain Amazushi has a Pepper robot in each of its 400 locations.Humanoid robots could potentially be used in many different industries.
Yet, these robots have also received skepticism. Pepper is expensive. Each robot costs more than $20,000.Not everyone has bought in to the idea of humanoid robots and their applications in industry or everyday life. One critique is related to a change in a robot’s perceived role, as Pepper and NAO are specifically designed for human interaction. This disrupts the idea that robots are functional machines designed to be useful in everyday life. In one news report about Pepper, the author writes: “It remains to be seen how people will respond to a robot that can’t cook or clean but instead asks how you’re feeling and watches you sleep.”Even if society embraces humanoid robots that are able to interact with people, it could be a long time before they are seen in many hospitals, schools, or assisted living communities.
From NAO in education and healthcare to Pepper in museums and restaurant chains, humanoid robots have the potential to improve experiences. Humanoid robots’ capability for meaningful human interaction makes them promising in these sectors. However, there is a long way to go before they grow into their full potential and are embraced at a larger societal scale. That being said, if I find myself with Pepper at a Smithsonian museum in the future, I look forward to taking a selfie.
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- Smithsonian news release, “Smithsonian Launches Pilot Program of ‘Pepper’ Robots”: https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/releases/smithsonian-launches-pilot-program-pepper-robots.
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