In case you were concerned, robots will not be taking over the world any time soon. By the time you are older, however, you may be seeing them around working regular jobs and looking just as human as you.
For some of today’s most sophisticated human-like robots, we have Hanson Robotics to thank. No, these are not the high-performance kind of robots you might associate with Boston Dynamics and expect to see on a battlefield.
The kinds of robots Hanson builds look eerily human — and they should, Hanson builds the most lifelike robots in the world — but they are just a shell, an image formed in the shape of man designed to help man, specifically, the elderly and those with special needs.
The man behind the vision is Dr. David Hanson, who founded Hanson Robotics over a decade ago with the goal of creating human-like expressive robots that would one day become a “relationship machine” capable of understanding your thoughts and emotions like a friend or partner would.
Today, the man continuing the charge is Jong Lee, now the CEO of Hanson Robotics, which is headquartered in Hong Kong.
We had the pleasure of meeting Jong at the Kairos Global Summit a while back where he demonstrated the facial expression capabilities of one of the robots he brought along. The robot itself consisted of just the upper torso and a head. While the exposed chest and shoulders revealed plastic and metal, the bald, artificial skin-covered head and face were able to uncannily express sadness, fear, embarrassment and worry. We had the strange pleasure of feeling it’s skin, called Frubber, which felt very soft and realistic.
To top it off, Jong controlled its every movement from his phone. We may have very well witnessed and touched the surprisingly affordable future of medical care, education, and special needs care.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Jong over email after the event where we asked him about the future of robotics, what they’ve been cooking up in their labs, and how the first robots we’ll be seeing in mainstream society won’t be anything like what we’ve seen in sci-fi movies.
How is Hanson Robotics leading the industry of life-like robots?
“Some of the original Einstein and Philip K. Dick robots from many years ago are still far better than what our competitors offer. What has changed is the market appreciation for the company’s work and the overall accelerating global embrace of service robotics in general. This is largely due to the 100 times increase in capability of so many of our enabling technologies such as the cloud, natural language processing, computer vision, motor miniaturization (motors still have a long way to go) and processing power. As everyone knows, batteries still suck, but fortunately, Hanson Robotics technology like our Frubber nanomaterials that we use for our faces are 20 times more energy efficient than our competitors. On the other side of the equation, society’s need to adopt service robots to help address very large and challenging issues we face has never been bigger and is growing at rates far outstripping inflation and GDP growth.”
For your current facial gesture/recognition project, can you tell us about the industries that it could change forever with the new technology?
“A truly expressive human face as the new ‘interface’ for technology has a broad range of applications where humans need to or benefit from interacting with technology or other humans currently. The highest benefit will be in applications where understanding authentic human behavior is important for technology to better serve people.
Areas where we believe we can make a 100 times impact include healthcare, education and consumer care. Humanoid robots would be ideal for life companions for the elderly, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia as well as social training for autistic children. Our robots aim to offer high-fidelity human expression to demonstrate empathy and care while also providing the consistency, repeatability, scalability and reliability necessary satisfy these sorts of necessary services where demand far outstrips qualified human supply and budget today.
Another large opportunity would be in customer/client services such as hotel front desks, bank teller windows, office/airport information desks and government services windows.
To address these opportunities, we are moving forward with two robot ‘classes.’ One is a full-sized human robot production line where very human service robots can be hired to work 24 hours per day, which would be very cost-effective. The other potentially even more exciting product line is our personal robot range which will be sold at exceptionally low prices and powered in whole, or in part, by smartphones.”
How much could a robot end up costing?
“I can’t officially disclose our final retail pricing but our goal is to ensure that the retail price is far more affordable than an iPad. The sort of value engineering and scale necessary to achieve our goals is an important reason why we are currently headquartered in Hong Kong.
“On both fronts, we are 100 percent supportive of great innovation pioneers like Elon Musk, who fully appreciate the need to take price and practicality away as excuses not to embrace great new technology. In Hong Kong, a Model S is as great a value as a comparably equipped BMW 5 Series, but is taxed significantly because of the displacement of its gas powered engine and the cost of gasoline being twice that of the US. Range is also far less of an issue in Hong Kong versus California for example. If it weren’t for the waiting list, I’d be a happy customer already!”
What are the greatest obstacles Hanson is dealing with in terms of your current projects?
“While the company is over a decade old, Hanson Robotics is still a startup and we face many of the same challenges that a lot of other startups encounter including funding, securing the best and brightest talent around the world and pushing forward to demonstrate substantial use cases and achieving initial levels of production scale.
In addition, Dr. Hanson prides himself on ensuring that Hanson Robots reflect our best-in-class MMA (mixed martial arts) approach combining art, hardware and software excellence. That takes a concerted effort to bring such diverse talent pools together to deliver an amazing product. We are blessed with some of the best minds in robotics and AI with friendships and support from world class minds such as Dr. Ben Goertzel (AI) and Fields Medal Award Recipient Dr. Mark Tilden. Working with super brilliant people takes a lot of effort! Finally, by focusing on authentic, fully expressive human robots (the ‘hard stuff’) we aren’t an easy story to sell in Palo Alto, where there is far greater interest in lower hanging software-only fruit.”
Can you tell us about any personal philosophies you have for robotics? What they should be used for, what we should or shouldn’t avoid, etc.?
“I don’t want to speak for anyone else, especially for Dr. Hanson who is not just the founder but the visionary for our company, but as for myself, my philosophy around robotics is really not so different than that for technology in general.
First, robots and robotics is just technology, inspired by and created by people, and Hanson Robots are, in many ways, simply technology with a beautiful humane smile. Accordingly, ultimate responsibility for providing benefit through or allowing harm to come from technology and tools falls upon the people using that technology.
Second, I think the highest and best use for service robotics are in the “non-contact” high value-added services that Hanson Robotics is focused on, such as elder care, special needs child-care and bringing great service back to ‘customer service.’ I have two young children and I am a big consumer of news and data. Given all of the other things that are happening in the world today, both good and bad, and how human beings are allocating precious dollars and human capital, I believe humanoid robots are the very least of society’s concerns. Taking away the physical element and focusing on our great social liabilities and obligations to empower and liberate our best and brightest to focus their talents on building a better tomorrow for all of our kids seems like a good idea to me.”
What have been the greatest lessons you’ve learned working in an industry that could shape the future of humanity?
“My biggest lesson so far is the gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle reminder that innovation and technology are extremely broad terms. To me, robotics represents one of many human-facing manifestations and integrations of hundreds of other technologies and innovations brought to life by brilliant artistic inspiration.
There seems to almost be a paradox in the prevailing thinking when it comes to robots like in many other technology verticals. On one hand, people often do not want to retain the individual and societal level responsibility for the important decisions that impact our lives today and tomorrow. On the other, people sometimes are tempted to preoccupy themselves with futuristic notions (and robotics is still in the very early chapters of a great book) of potential futures largely derived from a handful of great but frightening sci-fi movies.”
How soon could the industry see a fully functioning, human-looking robot equipped with both facial and body language gestures?
“I can’t speak for running superhero robots like the ones Boston Dynamics and their peers are developing. For our robots, where human interaction is the key element of service robotics, we hope to deploy our initial commercial use case field units within the next year. We hope to be in volume production for our full sized robots in the next 24 months. Our goal is to have our initial small low-cost expressive personal robots in the markets sooner than that.”
What are your thoughts on combining artificial intelligence and robotics? Will it lead to the panic and danger other entrepreneurs like Elon Musk warn us about?
“As Dr. Hanson and Dr. Geortzel will tell you, truly effective and functional artificial general intelligence is a long time away. That being said, AI for specific tasks is already in use today with and without what we would deem to be robots. There is substantial and profoundly beneficial upside for humanity robotics augmented in whole or in part by AI to help people. Whether it is drones to make sure forest fires and pipeline leaks are detected immediately, or to help farms improve yield while dramatically reducing water and pesticide use, or Hanson robots to alleviate the great human and financial burdens of healthcare and education costs, the examples are endless.
“I think what great entrepreneurs like Mr. Musk and even bigger minds like Dr. Hawking are expressing is the potential danger of powerful AI, regardless of the robot body or packaging. The basis for much of this is super efficient and scalable decision-making based on massive amounts of data in the cloud without human intervention or control.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there are Antartica-sized buckets of data being mined already growing at an exponential rate. Much of the stock market in the U.S., for example, is driven by increasingly more automated programmed trading platforms and algorithms. Again and again, we see that decisions for good or bad are driven by people, politics, near-term societal demands and the lack of more honest and robust debate about the bigger issue. I believe the warnings about AI are the same warnings that we should heed about so many things where the actions of a few have a global macro impact. We as people still need and can make the tough decisions.”
Where will we first start to see robots working human jobs?
“At a broader level, I think robotics will much more rapidly impact areas such as resource exploration, agriculture and logistics — things where the current systems are grossly outdated and crying out for more logical applications of readily available technology.”
If you had unlimited time and money, what is the most amazing creation you would hope to build?
“I would love everyone to have a fantastic caring and supportive robot friend to help all of us be complete and thoughtful human beings. We are nearing an area of potential population decline and I believe it will become increasingly more important for technology to help each of us realize our full potential.”