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One of the earliest mentions of a robot can be traced to the work of Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. Said to have been designed around 1495, this “mechanical knight" stemmed from Da Vinci’s fascination with the human anatomy. Historical references indicate that this robot was designed for and displayed at a pageant hosted by the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. There are even references to it being used on the battlefield for defensive purposes.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Da Vinci’s notes and sketches were discovered by Italian historian Carlo Pedretti. These revealed that this knight could sit, stand, raise its visor and execute certain actions, like moving its arms, neck and jaw, independently. This was possible thanks to interconnected gears, wheels, and its intricate pulley and cable mechanism.

If this mechanical knight was to be upgraded into an advanced humanoid robot today, it would find the perfect companion in MiRo, a fully programmable and autonomous social robot developed by the UK-based company Consequential Robotics.

Social robots are being tested in the elder care sector. Photo: Getty Images
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Social robots are being tested in the elder care sector. Photo: Getty Images

I came face to face with MiRo at the India-UK FutureTech Festival in Delhi on a cold December afternoon. Some of the leading technology companies from India and the UK, along with scientists and policymakers, were participating in the inaugural edition of the event. From intelligent apparel and state-of-the art motion capture technology to a car that runs on water and aluminium, there was much to see.

But MiRo—with its wagging tail, expressive eyes and “lifelike behaviour"—drew many spectators. MiRo uses biomimetic features, multiple sensors and a brain-inspired control system to interact with humans. It is designed to respond to human touch and has an on-board speaker that creates familiar mammalian sounds. These features are inspired by the characteristics of mammals such as cats, dogs, rabbits, bats and dolphins. Its rabbit-like ears, big eyes (which are essentially two high-definition cameras) and a nose that houses a sonar sensor give it the look of a fantastical creature, something of a hybrid between a dog and a rabbit. But the collar around its neck also gives it the look of an adored pet.

Social robots like MiRo, unlike industrial robots, are designed to interact with humans, aided by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and independent movements. They even display emotions.

These companion robots can tell a joke, help you sleep, show you how to exercise and remind you to take your pills on time. Some of them can even measure your blood pressure and heart rate and administer medicine. They can register your face and gauge whether you are in a sombre or joyful mood.

These robots might not be performing any life-altering functions, but the gradually increasing relevance of social robots is indicative of the remarkable advances made in the fields of robotics and AI. We may not be too far from a golden age of invention where robots could become a reflection of ourselves as evidenced by sci-fi TV series Westworld and Black Mirror.

MiRo is designed to interact with humans. Photo courtesy: Consequential Robotics
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MiRo is designed to interact with humans. Photo courtesy: Consequential Robotics

When machines respond

While MiRo might not have felt the cold December wind, it certainly detects my touch on its back through capacitive touch sensors. It has similar sensors on its head. You pet it and it responds by batting its mechanical eyelids. It moves on three wheels and navigates using accelerometers and other sensors.

LED light sensors underneath its white body shell display light patterns as a form of response. Apart from robot-human interaction, MiRo can also participate in robot-to-robot interaction. MiRo’s founders—designer and innovator Sebastian Conran, biomimetic robotics and AI researcher Tony Prescott, and robots and programming language expert Ben Mitchinson—were looking to design the robot as a research tool but MiRo is now being used for social care too. It is being tested in the UK at care homes for the elderly and in schools for children with special needs. An advanced version of the robot, MiRo-E, will be launched at the education technology event Bett Show 2019 in London next week. MiRo-E is made for schools and educational institutions, to help pupils learn how to code.

“MiRo is a hybrid of lots of different animals...because we want MiRo to have its own distinct personality," explains Conran in an official introductory video on the robot on the Consequential Robotics website. “We are trying to replicate nature, rather than go the normal artificial intelligence route, which is more mechanical and produces a much more stilted type of action and behaviour."

Almost 20 years ago, a similar robot grasped the world’s attention in the form of Sony’s Aibo. It was a first-of-its-kind consumer robot that was capable of “growing" from a puppy to an adult dog. Aibo—short for “Artificial Intelligence Robot" and the Japanese word for “companion"—operated autonomously in response to external stimuli and also expressed emotions. Aibo was capable of developing a unique personality, including behaviour shaped by interactions with its owner and surroundings. It went up for sale on the internet in June 1999, with around 5,000 models made for Japan and the US. The initial lot of the four-legged robot sold out in Japan (priced at 250,000 yen, or around 1.6 lakh now) in less than 20 minutes.

Aibo’s success triggered a massive interest in robotics—it is seen as a milestone in creating a connection between humans and social robots. New models were introduced every year till Sony decided to discontinue Aibo’s production in 2006. According to a 2017 article on, what made Aibo special was the fact that it was “disobedient" (it learns, like a pet, over time), unlike other robots released around the same time, which were designed to follow orders from scratch. Aibo’s ability to learn and evolve made it “more of a pet than a toy".

There was, in fact, a huge backlash when Sony decided to stop technical support for the Aibo models. Some consumers, especially in Japan, had formed such a strong bond with Aibo that they even held funerals for their robotic pets when they became obsolete. So it didn’t come as a surprise that 12 years later Sony reintroduced an advanced model of Aibo in Japan in January 2018. The highlight feature of Aibo’s new model is its ability to “form an emotional bond" with members of a household.

Sneh Vaswani of Emotix with Miko, a personal robot for children. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Sneh Vaswani of Emotix with Miko, a personal robot for children. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Emotional intelligence

While the design and technical aspects of social robots have evolved over the years, companies in India and elsewhere have also focused on building robots that can display varying degrees of emotional intelligence.

Sneh Vaswani, co-founder and CEO of the Mumbai-based robotics company Emotix, is sitting at a table in our office studio with a couple of pixie blue variants of Miko 2—the latest model of a personal robot for children, launched in November, for 25,000.

Vaswani, along with co-founders Prashant Iyengar and Chintan Raikar, is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. They founded Emotix in 2014 and the idea behind creating Miko, Vaswani explains, was to give parents a positive gateway of technology for their children. “We came across a lot of cases where parents disliked the fact that their children were addicted to gadgets at a young age. When we asked the same parents if they would want their children to abstain from technology, they said no. That’s when we realized that there was a need for a new interface of technology that will be loved by children as well as their parents," adds Vaswani. The first version of Miko launched in November 2017.

“Our core area of research is emotional intelligence. It’s a niche area of AI where, through a plethora of sensors in Miko, we try to quantify the emotional state of the user. Miko 2 has a camera and can understand (through voice recognition) who is speaking. It can try to create your personality profile over a long period of time, based on how you use it. Accordingly, it can change its own personality over due course. It can be a great teacher, a great friend or a great tutor," says Vaswani.

Imagine your children leaving for school and waving goodbye to their robot. Sensing that its companions are leaving, the robot’s eyes droop. When the children return, the robot comes back to life and is ready to engage with them. It even lets out a loud yawn if it hasn’t been interacted with for a while.

These are just some of the emotional responses Miko can exhibit.

Miko weighs less than a kilo. Its shape and design are reminiscent of EVE—the robot probe from the 2008 animated movie WALL-E. When prompted with the hotwords: “Hey Miko", and combined with different voice commands, the two Mikos respond to Vaswani, performing 360-degree turns on the table and moving around.

Behind Miko’s endearing actions is an entire network of sensors and meters. There are more than 34 sensor lines in Miko 2, Vaswani explains. These include noise-cancellation microphones, high-definition cameras, touch pads and the world’s smallest time-of-flight sensor, a laser-ranging sensor that helps it build a map of its surroundings. Odometric, or motion sensors, help Miko calculate if it has been moved. To ensure that these sensors function properly, Emotix does cloud monitoring of all the components inside Miko.

The San Francisco-based consumer robotics and AI company Anki has gone a step further with its home robot Vector. Dubbed the home robot with a personality, Vector looks like a mini bulldozer that can fit in your palm. Its constantly moving green eyes (on a high-res IPS colour display) squint when you pet it or come back home from work. This display also lets Vector show a range of emotions. It uses deep neural networks to understand its surroundings. Ask the robot for a fist bump, and it obliges. Vector can take photographs, tell you about the weather with animations, set a timer and even connect to the internet to answer your questions. Vector can also navigate the space it is in. For instance, when it’s running low on battery, Vector can find its own way to the charging dock. According to an introductory video on Anki’s website, Vector—launched in October—is “a step closer to that sci-fi robot that everyone wants to be friends with".

Vector’s tech specifications are spectacular—for such a compact robot, it has nearly 700 parts, including an HD camera and a processor with cloud connectivity. It is programmed with millions of lines of coding, which power its intelligence and personality.

The importance of emotional intelligence in machines is explained in the 2008 book The Science Of Emotional Intelligence: Knowns And Unknowns—a collection of articles on the usefulness of emotional intelligence in different fields. In the chapter titled “Toward Machines With Emotional Intelligence", Rosalind W. Picard, founder and director of the Affective Computing research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, points out how “machines that have the potential to show emotion will also need the intelligence to know when not to show it". Picard cites the example of the computer software agent Clippit—“the talking, dancing, smiling cartoon paperclip Office Assistant" that was designed to help Microsoft Office users. Picard writes that while “Clippit is a genius about Microsoft Office, he is an idiot about people, especially about handling emotions", since it doesn’t notice when a user is annoyed.

Clippit’s example “illustrates three skills of emotional intelligence (along) with some of the problems they can cause when missing from technology," explains Picard. “As technology is increasingly applied to situations where it must interact with is all the more vital that it does so in a way that is courteous and respectful of people’s feelings," Picard writes.

The latest version of Sony’s Aibo is capable of forming an emotional bond with its owners. Photo: Sony
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The latest version of Sony’s Aibo is capable of forming an emotional bond with its owners. Photo: Sony

Nannies and grannies

In the future, social robots are expected to have varied uses. Apart from being used for educational purposes—as is the case with MiRo and Miko—they are being designed to take care of the elderly too. There’s potentially a big market for such robots in India, given that the population of our elderly is expected to grow to over 320 million by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s “India Ageing Report-2017".

Recounting a personal experience, Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, a British agri-tech start-up that is using robots to transform farming, says there are plenty of opportunities for robotics in social care.

“As you go through the stages with Alzheimer’s, what’s required is somebody or something that has infinite patience—who can comfort you, reassure you when you are asking the same question over and over again…and let you feel comfortable and confident in your environment," says Scott-Robinson, whom I met at the India-UK FutureTech Festival. “I think robots would do that better than people. There is a really big usage for robotics. Not in replacing people but actually doing a job that people can’t do (as well)," he adds. He does, however, warn that making robots too much like humans is “going off down the wrong route".

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Robot developers should instead focus on vital non-verbal contact elements such as responsiveness and expressions. “The trouble is when you try and make things more like people, you run the risk of making them look nothing like people. It puts people off, particularly in social care."

A 2017 BBC documentary—Can Robots Love Us?—explores whether robots can connect with humans emotionally and physically. The documentary follows James Young, a double amputee with a bionic arm, as he interviews experts to see how robots are being developed to engage with humans.

One segment of the documentary looks at researchers from the University of Hertfordshire testing robots at a home in Hatfield to see if they can take care of humans—especially the elderly. The resident robots at this house include two models of Care-o-Bot, a mobile robot assistant, and Pepper, the socially interactive humanoid. The Care-o-Bot, for instance, reminds an octogenarian guest to stay hydrated because he hasn’t had anything to drink for a couple of hours. Pepper, meanwhile, starts a conversation and then breaks into a dance to entertain the guest.

The trend of making social robots more lifelike has also left experts wondering if they can replace human beings as companions. Researchers at Stanford University have developed an electronic glove with sensors that could give robotic hands the human-like sense of touch and dexterity. In Japan, scientists have found a way to make the faces of human-like robots more expressive.

Some experts feel that these features definitely help in areas such as social care, but questions remain over privacy and the demand for social robots.

Vector, developed by Anki, is called the home robot with a personality. Photo: Anki
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Vector, developed by Anki, is called the home robot with a personality. Photo: Anki

A robot that loves you?

In science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s 1942 short story Runaround, his three laws of robotics became a consolidating theme for all his robots-based fiction. He added a fourth law that preceded the other three: “A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." Today, we are looking at a future where these laws could actually be put to the test.

Imagine a robot that will be watching you and listening to your conversations. An omnipresent machine connected to the internet that can think on its own. Some of these robots are also designed to recognize your voice and face over time. How all this data will be stored and handled remains a point of contention.

“It will be the biggest worry. The people who are using these companion robots are not (always) the tech-savvy kind. Trust is going to be important as and when companies are building these robots and people are using them…. Take the example of the latest digital assistants. They are programmed to listen to every conversation that happens within your house. There is a lot of social responsibility involved. If you are making a social robot, you have to be socially responsible as well," says Vijay S. Bhaskaran, partner, robotics and intelligent automation, EY India. Bhaskaran adds that while industrial and software robots are being adopted in India at a rapid pace, it could well be quite a few years before India gets to meet proper companion robots.

According to a Guardian article in June on how realistic robots can get, a robot cognition specialist says people’s comfort level with robots varies significantly across cultures, making the ethics of such interactions even harder to pin down. “In Japan, where the animus belief perhaps makes people more comfortable with the idea that spirit can reside in something that isn’t human, robots are already being used as shop assistants, in care homes and in schools…. In Europe, by contrast, people are generally uncomfortable with the idea of an android performing roles that require interaction with humans."

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Privacy, trust, emotions and a human touch—these elements are expected to play a huge role in the future of social robots and determine how human-robot interaction shapes up. But that hasn’t stopped innovators from dreaming big. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 in Las Vegas earlier this month, the Japanese company Groove X showcased its robot LOVOT. This 16-inch-tall robot is designed, according to a Bloomberg story, to “hack human emotions". LOVOT doesn’t speak, but it can make noises that are a mix of meows and chirps.

Designed by former Formula One car designer Kaname Hayashi, the $3,000 robot has been created to be a companion and provide a feeling of comfort. According to a company spokesperson, LOVOT won’t perform tasks but it will greet you when you reach home, follow you around, and seek your love and attention—just like a pet or a child would—in a number of ways: including asking to be picked up by raising its arms. Once LOVOT is comfortable in your arms, it will fall asleep.

“We don’t think they’ll replace human beings and we don’t want them to. We don’t want to replace that relationship with a pet or another family member. However, social robots can fulfil other roles…. For example, in Japan there are people who want to have pets but can’t because of health or other factors. Social robots can help give them comfort and companionship in these cases," says a Groove X spokesperson on email.

That explains LOVOT’s soft skin, warm body, ability to make eye contact and shy away from people it doesn’t recognize. Almost like a human being—though not quite.

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