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Robots among us: they can chat, clean and do chores

Look out for these artificial intelligence (AI) innovations that are available or poised to go online

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 July, 2017, 9:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 July, 2017, 10:23am

The notion of machines taking over the world has been bandied around since a 1921 play premiered at the National Theatre in Prague.

In R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots), playwright Karel Capek’s protagonists were artificial people moulded out of some kind of chemical batter which, by all accounts, “looked exactly like humans”. The story had a tragic ending, but luckily, almost a century on, reports of death by robot in real life are rare. Machines are getting smarter, and more lifelike, in the way they can help out around the house.

Many artificial intelligence (AI) innovations are either available or poised to go online. Here are ones to look out for.

Doubling as a smart home gateway, LG’s Hub Robot syncs with other connected appliances in the household, using Amazon’s Alexa’s voice recognition technology to complete tasks such as turning on the air conditioner or changing a dryer cycle. An interactive “face” displays handy information, such as images showing the contents of your fridge – for which it will then suggest recipes and provide easy-to-follow audio instructions. The Hub Robot is also your go-to for playing music, setting alarms, creating reminder memos and providing weather and traffic updates.

Via its built-in screen, the Hub Robot can “express” emotions, and is designed to respond to humans’ body language, such as nodding its head in response to simple questions. It’s able to distinguish between family members, with a different greeting for each, and is “always aware of activities inside the home, such as when family members leave, come home and go to bed”. The robot is scheduled for release in South Korea and the United States in the first half of 2018.

A domestic robot called Kuri, developed by Mayfield Robotics, a Bosch start-up based in California, US, has similar artificial intelligence. Unveiled in Las Vegas at CES 2017 – and slated for release in the US by the end of 2017, for US$699 – Kuri can understand context and surroundings, recognise people, and respond to questions with head movements and facial expressions.

Kuri’s built-in camera lets its owner check in on the house or pets while they’re away, and can read a bedtime story to the children later. Although we’re not sure how welcome this function would be, Kuri can even “follow you around playing podcasts while you’re getting ready for work”.

Kaijen Hsiao, CTO and co-founder of Mayfield Robotics, says that while “insanely cute on the outside”, Kuri contains technologies that represent the latest developments in smartphones, gaming and robotics. “We hope Kuri introduces people – especially children – to the power of technology and can inspire a new world of possibilities,” Hsiao says.

British start-up Emotech debuted its domestic robot, Olly, as “empowered by a brain-inspired AI engine and uses deep learning to provide accurate speech and emotion interaction”. Olly is smart enough to take its cue from you: for the inquisitive, it talks faster, and provides more suggestions. Olly impressed the judges at CES 2017 to take home innovation awards in four categories.

MoRo, one of the more intuitive home robots showcased in Las Vegas, was developed by Beijing company EwayBot Technology. It can respond to hand gestures and do things for its human counterparts, such as fetching a Coke on request – recognising the drink through its camera, and grabbing it with its mechanical hand. MoRo also disposes of the empty can.

Another Chinese invention unveiled, the Lynx from Ubtech Robotics, responds to voice commands in the way Amazon Alexa would. Lynx can send emails for you, play your music, and also walk around. It’s flexible enough to demonstrate yoga poses. This bot can also stream a live feed into your house, moving around to show you what’s happening, and use your own voice to communicate with whoever is there. A release date is yet to be announced.

One smart machine developed on our shores is Gordon, the barista robot, brought to life by Henry Hu and his team at Café X Technologies at Hong Kong Science Park. Hu says the idea for Gordon was inspired by a real life problem: the chance nature of the morning coffee routine.

“You have two options for getting a cup of coffee today - it’s either good and takes too long or it’s shitty, but fast,” he says. “Sometimes you’re in and out with delicious coffee. Other times you’re in a 30-minute line. It’s inconsistent and inconvenient.”

Hu had to take Gordon overseas for job opportunities and left for the US last year after raising US$5 million in seed funding from investors there. Today, Gordon does duty at the Metreon shopping centre in downtown San Francisco, serving up espresso-based coffee and hot chocolate made to order via mobile app.

Will “he” ever come home to roast? Sadly, Hu says there are no plans.