Just over a month ago, a hostess named ChihiraAico was working in a department store in Tokyo. She made a very capable worker, dressed in a traditional kimono and politely providing information and directions to customers, able to communicate in Japanese, Korean, English and even Japanese sign language. But the most remarkable thing about her was that unlike all the other assistants in the store, she wasn’t human. She was a robot.
The creation of electronics manufacturer Toshiba, ChihiraAico was first unveiled at CEATEC Japan 2014, and then again in CES in Las Vegas earlier this year. Her short post at the Mitsukoshi department store marks her first commercial application. Designed to look like a 32-year-old woman, she has been programmed to do far more than give directions. She has a wide library of expressions thanks to 43 individual motors and can even cry or sing.
Like her fellow automaton Pepper, ChihiraAico’s creators have high hopes for the future of her line. Imagine, for instance, a robot companion for an elderly person with dementia. One who would never tire of answering repeated questions, able to provide direction and comfort and communicate with healthcare professionals should the need arise. This particular idea was the subject of 2012 film Robot & Frank, and thanks to tech companies like Toshiba and Aldebaran, it might not be considered science fiction for much longer.
But for all we may marvel at the success of our endeavours, seeing something so human looking might leave many feeling uncomfortable. ChihiraAico is a far cry from the robots most recognised in media – from the manipulative android clone Maria in Metropolis to the giant, unyielding Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, these metal machines are where are minds tend to jump to first. Popular fiction has made us wary, suspicious of beings able to think so much faster and be made so much stronger than we are.
Perhaps IMB’s Watson, the massive room sized computer, is ironically easier to connect to, being so obviously what it is – a giant machine. (Though lets hope that no one decides to try to be funny and have it start calling everyone ‘Dave’.)
However you might personally feel about our organically challenged new creations, one thing is clear – their existence is now a reality, whether mankind is ready for them or not.
In January of this year, the Future of Life Institute published an open letter signed by many of the heaviest hitters in Science and Technology including, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. In it the institute reiterates what many of us already know, that the future applications of AI are likely to have a vast impact on our society and that it may one day be within our power to eradicate disease and even hunger. But it also warns that a great deal more research is needed to ensure that the intelligences we create are robust and beneficial and that above all,
…our AI systems must do what we want them to do.
Looking down the list of the letter’s signatories, it is easy to see that this opinion is not just the concern of a select few. Asimov’s first three laws of robotics may no longer just belong in his fictional universe.
And while it may be easy for some to dismiss the thought of robots walking among us as being confined to the big screen, it’s worth remembering that nowadays most of us already have a digital assistant we interactive with daily. From Apple’s Siri program to Microsoft’s Cortana, these widespread applications have become common place in the space of only a few short years. And their processes are only going to continue improving.
Over in San Jose, California, a team co-founded by some of the experts who helped originally develop Siri are working on the next big step AI development, a program that can teach itself. Named Viv, this technology will have the ability to improve and adapt itself, not just able to understand a question and provide you with the answer, but to consider context and apply it. While Siri might be able to tell you the location of a cinema playing the film you want to take your date to, Viv will be able to suggest a restaurant that serves your favourite meal to eat in afterwards. Then make you a reservation.
The implications are huge, which is perhaps why until late last year the project was mostly a mystery. It’s an exciting time for the industry, with so many possible applications and avenues to follow, it’s a race to see who’s going to reap the rewards of our latest technological triumph first.
For the majority of us however, it’s a waiting game. We’re left to bear witness as these new programs of convenience are added to our computers, phones and tablets thanks to which ever company fronted the most money the fastest. For the residents of Tokyo, asking a robot instead of another human for help will soon become commonplace and the rest of the world won’t be far behind. Leaving us to wonder, vaguely, if we should watch the last season of Battlestar Galactica to see how that whole ‘robots that think’ thing worked out for them.
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Want to learn more about robots and AI? Of course you do!
- Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek (eBook via the University of Adelaide) – this Czech playwright coined the term ‘robot’, don’tcha’know.
- This Wikepedia article will give you the low down on Asimov’s First Laws of Robotics
- Here’s what IBM has to say on Cognative Computing
- Want to know how ready Japan is to embrace our new robotic overlords? Read this!