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Social robots: Will they make technology more human?

Imagine social robots that can see and perceive us as humans.

Imagine social robots that can see and perceive us as humans. That will not only detect our faces, but also understand what our facial expressions mean. That will remember us and instantly recognize us when they see us again.

Well, we don’t have to imagine, because social robots already exist. In fact, on June 16, I was in a webinar with a social robot. As you may know, I love robots. This robot was in my favorite city, Stockholm, which I’ve fortunately visited four times. To be fair, its human colleagues at the Swedish startup Furhat Robotics were the ones conducting the webinar. Namely, Furhat Robotics Co-founder and Senior R&D Engineer Jonas Beskow and Product Owner Nils Hagberg.

Situational awareness

Beskow and Hagberg demonstrated in real-time the impressive visual perception of the Furhat robot. To interact socially with humans, a robot needs more than facial recognition. They gave an in-depth presentation on the algorithms that power the robot. This is how computer vision gives the Furhat robot situational awareness and social intelligence. It readily recognizes a human face and quickly understands what his or her facial expression means, and how to respond accordingly.

Will social robots help people become less afraid of robots and AI, and do you see social robots becoming an integral part of human society, I asked Beskow and Hagberg after the presentation.

“Personally, yes, I definitely do. This is why it’s very important how we design our social robots and how we design interactions with robots. I think this is the core of what Furhat Robotics is doing. That we’re trying to make these interactions as friendly and engaging and we’re trying to bring all the positive qualities of human interaction into this mix,” Beskow told Digital Life Asia.

Robots in human society

While Furhat Robotics believes social robots will become an integral part of human society, it also emphasized that we should examine what our relationship to them will be. This includes asking: Will they become our work slaves that do all the tasks that we want to avoid? Or will they become our companions that will help us bring the compassion and empathy that we want to see in societies?

“We hope our company and our robot can nudge the world in the right direction, and show people that we can make technology that will help us be more human,” Hagberg said.

In a Furhat blog post, Beskow explained why visual perception is critical.

“To summarize; to function well in a social setting, a robot needs the same fundamental visual perception capabilities as a human. The visual perception of the Furhat robot focuses on human faces, because that’s where the most critical information lies. It can detect the presence of people, it can estimate their location and follow them with its gaze. It can tell where their visual focus of attention is based on their head orientation. It can recognize people it has seen before, so that it can remember what they have already talked about. It can tell if you are happy, and smile back at you.

“As any well-behaved robot should.”

Are you ready to interact with social robots? The future is already here.

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