Humanoid robots add to fun at Hong Kong talk

Designer is working on prototypes of life-size robots in his Hong Kong studio that he says could be adapted to shop, clean and cook

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 10:59am

Human-like robots akin to those in the seminal science-fiction movie Star Wars may soon be found on earth thanks to a former Nasa scientist who relocated from the United States to work in Hong Kong.

Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist, is currently creating prototypes of a life-size humanoid at his design studio in Sai Kung.

"The ultimate goal is to come up with something that China is desperate for - a home robot assistant to clean your house, make your meals, get you your medication and put itself away," he said. But he acknowledged humans might not be ready for it.

"Our real problem now is that we have the technology, but we just don't understand how to fit it into our culture," he said.

"One day, it will be an amazing platform. We could do it next year but the problem is how do you introduce it to the market?

"So we will bring up the robots when it is culturally expedient to do so - that is, when we've got a design, a style and an application that isn't going to peeve your girlfriend."

Tilden was referring to the prototype: a 170cm, 20kg, shapely female robot with 186 hours of battery power, priced at around US$1,000.

He said one of the robot's "applications" could be as a personal shopper or assistant: "It will be able to shop for you in New York while you are in Hong Kong because it will have your size and shape."

Tilden was one of 20 speakers yesterday at a TEDx event in Quarry Bay talking about the future of fun. He told the audience of 700 that a world with robots that look and act like humans was almost a reality.

In 2004, Tilden created the top-selling Robosapien toy, of which close to eight million have been sold worldwide.

"As a robotics scientist, as a Nasa physicist, I could never show you any of my robots. Now, I can have them walk in crowds of kids and they love it… parents not so much," he joked. The British-born Canadian spent a decade at Nasa developing robots for the Mars missions.

Using a hybrid of analogue and digital technology, he adapted his own ideas on human neural and nervous networks to develop a mass-market range of robots that could remember patterns and rhythms.

"What people don't realise is that Hong Kong has been the major centre for advanced robotic development for the world," he said.

Combining biology, aesthetics, electronics and mechanics, his team designs interactive but cost-efficient robots that Tilden says are 1,000 times cheaper than its nearest competitor.

Other speakers at the event included Ted Lai, executive vice-president for BBC Asia and Charis Entertainment director Grace Chen, a former Hollywood executive. Both spoke about the phenomenon of Korean pop star Psy, whose YouTube video for the "Gangnam-style" song has attracted more than 800 million hits, and how it might influence the next big hit in Asia.

TEDx talks are locally organised events modelled on the "Ideas worth spreading" idea that originated from the TED (technology, entertainment, design) brand started in the US in 1984.

In Hong Kong, there are about a dozen licence holders, who have organised TEDx events such as TEDx Wan Chai and TEDx Kowloon. TEDx Hong Kong licence holder Gino Yu chose yesterday's topic because he felt people in the city need to rediscover their sense of joy and passion for doing things they love.