By Richard Copland.

Robots and Artificial Intelligence have been part of our everyday lives for some time, be it with our smartphones or a laundry folding application.  The latter recently attracted a cool $60 million-dollar investment from Panasonic Technologies in Japan. Humans seem to find a mechanical helping hand irresistible and there will only be more of them in the future. But what shape will these machines take?

Prior to my future of work and workspace summit address and as part of my foresight series on Robots and Automation this piece explores robots in the shape of humans. It takes a slightly geeky dive into one of the ground-breaking humanoid projects as well as unpacking some of the reasons and benefits for personification of robots.

Robots and the service industry

In 2015, the Service Robot industry was estimated to be worth $7 billion-dollar an is expected to expand over the next few years to an estimated $40 billion-dollar industry.  The International Organization for Standardization defines a “service robot” as a robot “that performs useful tasks for humans or equipment excluding industrial automation applications”. Not all will take the form of Humanoid robots but it is a certain fact that robots will be taking more and more work away from people.

There are going to have to be fundamental changes in the way we look at the automated economy. For some it will be an opportunity and for other this will mean that we will have to be a little bit more resilient. I unpacked aspects of this in the first part on the series, Leaving the robotics labs and coming to a workspace or home near you. Another part of that resilience is the impact the growth of robots in the workplace has on corporate tax and the knock aspects of government revenues.

The European Union was recently considering changing the status of a robot from that of a piece of equipment to that of an electrical person, so not an entity that has any of the rights a human being could have but some degree of personhood that would allow you to tax that robot and obviously make it slightly easier to look at things like issues such as legality and liability should a mishap occur.  The European lawmakers rejected the idea of a robot tax at this stage but did call for EU-wide legislation to regulate the rise of robots, including an ethical framework for their development and deployment and the establishment of liability for the actions of robots including self-driving cars.

But then there is the other question are robots taking the jobs that we want or need to do? Typically, robots in industry would take on the four D jobs, Dumb, Dull, Dangerous and Dirty work and its basically no life for a human being to perform those repetitive motions over the cause of their lives. It’s not a fulfilling career to have. We must ask ourselves are robots taking jobs from people because people are capable of more, because people deserve these jobs or are we raising people to perform these tasks that robots are better suited to do and are better at?

Erica – A real life Ava from Ex Machina

As we introduce more robots into our everyday lives there has been an undeniable obsession with the humanoid robot, to make the robot look an act more like humans. Even though in many cases that doesn’t have to be a requirement.  This isn’t a new phenomenon as throughout time there has been an obsession with creating products, artefacts, things and legacies in our own human image whether its fine art or mechanical engineering.

A project that takes this to a whole new level is the work by the bad boy of Japanese robotic, Hiroshi Ishiguro, and his work on Erica.  Erica is 23. She has a beautiful, neutral face and speaks with a synthesised voice. She has a degree of autonomy, but can’t move her hands yet.  Project Erica at the ATR Institute in Kyoto, Japan is looking to redefine what it means to be human through the creation of a robotic form that is as human as possible.

For her team of creators Erica is the most beautiful and humanlike autonomous android in the world. They are looking to create a robot that can think and act and do everything completely on its own.  To be a fully autonomous, fully human like android. She reminds me very much of Ava (Alicia Vikander) from the movie Ex Machina, the beautiful robot that a programmer at a huge Internet company, becomes the human component in a Turing test to determine the capabilities and consciousness of.

Erica has 20 degrees of freedom, which are mostly upper body. She can’t move her arms yet. She has 16 channel microphone arrays, localising where sound comes from so if somebody is talking she can figure out who is talking.  She has 14 infra-red depth sensors, to track where people are in the room, she also has face recognition capabilities and an incredible voice. Like the European Lawmakers the design team don’t see Erica as a human, or a machine, but as a new form anthropological category, that we don’t really have the right words to describe yet.

Science fiction coming into business

Whilst this feels more like science fiction and you may wonder why you would read about it on an innovation thought leadership platform for business there are also very practical reasons for having robots resemble the humanoid forms.  A notable example of this is Baxter one of the industrial robots I featured in my first thought piece.  It has six states of expression that it can use at any point in time. It can look sad when it when its powering down, because we as humans are hard wired to look at faces and facial expressions. When we see a sad face, it is easier for us to understand that this machine needs to be plugged into the power source, than to look at a very technical readout of its power status.

Gaze direction is a significant thing as well. If you are working in a factory with a robot it is helpful to understand where it is looking and what it is going to do next. This is simply accomplished where its eyes dot in the half second before it is about to pick something up. So practically it is reasonably useful to have robots resemble people.  We expect them to work in the environments and workspaces we want to be in.

We’ve built these workspaces to accommodate us and to be ergonomic. Our schools, our hospitals, our homes, our workplaces, it would make sense for a robot to fit seamlessly into any of these roles.

You can think of humanoid robots as these propositions that are a reflection on our relationship with technology. When we think about a future we think about a human shaped future because that is who we are.

With all this practical application of science fiction I will bring things far closer to business as usual in the last of the series with an investigation into Bots to allow knowledge workers to work even smarter.