The future of Asian robots, from Bot Bays to Booth Babes
Mon 16 Nov 2015
The annual Asia Robotics Week (November 12 – 13th) was held in Singapore this month to showcase industrial automation as well as the latest in the emerging breed of service robots. Typically industrial trade shows such as in the automotive sector are graced by decorative ladies of considerable personal charm but it appears age dependency is creating a gap in the market. The Korean firm FutureRobot has stepped in with a humaniform chassis toting a large LCD billboard slavishly following prospects. Somehow, it just doesn’t … feel the same.
FutureRobot was founded in 2009 by Dr. Se-Kyong Song and collaborated with Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) Human Robot Interaction Lab (HRIL) for the initial design. The project headed by Dong-Soo Kwon that specialised in emotion recognition, generation and expression based on a sentiment relation model was adopted as the core engagement engine. The effect is enhanced by manga-style face-screen and webcams for user recognition. The current FURO series proactively seeks humans, tasked with duties ranging from receiving meal orders to assisting the elderly.
The product line includes variants for Smart Service (hospitality, exhibits, guidance), Smart Signage (marketing, multilingual information) and i-Home (daily care, telepresence, security). Whilst it is definitely not Rosie (Jetsons) much less Motoko (from Ghost in the Shell), it indicates a distinct commercial divergence from pre-canned automation towards more personalised real-time interaction and feedback. Though the range of emotions are limited, by integrating tacit feedback mechanisms with posture recognition, object tracking and affective/deliberative actions/gestures, FURO aims to shift perceptions of service robot from tool/toy to welcomed guide/greeter.
Long-term prospects for the automated service industry appears positive for Asian countries with aging demographics and restrictive immigration policies as the shrinking labor pool drives up the minimum wage. The techno-economic pattern of banks replacing human tellers with ATMs and card-readers appear to be repeating in the low-skill low-context retail and hospitality sector. Given the reputation of Hong Kong waiters and shop assistants this can only be a step up to address the low-repeat order experience though apparently fake cheerfulness is not any better. The challenge will be whether FURO and descendants can escape blue collar industrial automation to bridge the uncanny valley and human distrust to become pink-collar counselors or constables.