Rise of the machine companions
Your future companion may not be human. It may not even be a cat. Brace yourself for the robots that can take their place
Facebook has set its sights on the love lives of its 200m single users with a new dating service — but if the tech and gadget worlds have their way your next companion may not even be human.
Over the past few years there has been an unprecedented rise in robots that act as companions, and this trend has not just been restricted to lonely Japanese businessmen. Thanks to the Dutch you can now buy a robot that gently "breathes" when you cuddle it, to help you fall asleep.
Yes, it does look more like a giant bean pillow — and a stuffed panda toy would probably suffice — but the Somnox is just one of many new additions to a market that has taken it well beyond humanlike sex robots.
The pursuit of robotics is not a new one but for a long time robots in the workplace were segregated to more service rescue roles (and not-so-secret military purposes).
Powerful processors that would normally be placed in a cellphone are now being used to power robots at more affordable prices. This allows for more innovation, particularly for smaller start-ups, at scales that weren’t possible before.
This is the tech behind the likes of Kuri, a companion robot that autonomously roams around your house, reacting to your voice and touch to provide pet-like companionship.
Think of Kuri as a member of your family who also has the ability to play music and take video. You can send Kuri off to the lounge to check on the kids or even check if you’ll need to stop for milk on your daily commute.
Mayfield Robotics, a Bosch-owned start-up that created Kuri, credits the drastic price drop in mapping and navigation sensors to advances in gaming, particularly virtual reality.
But the mark of a true companion is being able to read body language, specifically facial expressions. Like most robots, Kuri can’t speak — yet. It uses a series of sounds to communicate.
One of the biggest advances in companion robotics comes with the robot’s ability to recognise our emotional reactions to it. And the next step is for it to understand us when we talk.
For now, great strides have been taken for robots to understand our frown lines and whacky language.
This is in part thanks to "cognitive computing", found in the likes of IBM’s question-answering supercomputer, Watson.
Conventional computing is based on mathematical principles, and is programmed to follow rules and logic intended to derive mathematically precise answers.
Now, thanks to the world of big data, IBM’s Watson is able to unlock a new decision-making process that mirrors our own messy human ways of calculating priorities. It does this by analysing unstructured data made by humans for other humans to consume — from classic literature to tweets. Watson tries to understand the real intent of the user’s language and, from there, draws more human-like conclusions.
It’s this process that is now being implemented with robots. Take Pepper, a humanoid service-based robot used in the hospitality and medical industries.
Thanks to the integration of Watson, Pepper is better able to understand what users are saying and how they are saying it.
If Pepper senses that you are frowning or have become confused, it will start again and change the structure of its answers. It is also equipped with arms and hands that are used purely as expressive components, to put the user at ease. Or for dancing and posing for selfies, of course.
The inventors behind these robots say companions such as Kuri and Pepper are not meant to replace humans but to complement their lives.
The same can be said for smaller tabletop compatriots such as Maru, an experimental artificial intelligence robot created by Catalina Health to take care of medical tasks at home, with specific focus on seniors. It will remind users to take their pills or monitor their water intake, all the while being cute and personable.
Or there is Fribo, an anime-like Korean robot with bright eyes. Its purpose is to provide company for lonely millennials (who are, ironically, alienated from society thanks to advances in technology) and try to facilitate conversation based on their behaviour. It uses what Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science & Technology calls their "living noise",
This means it will observe your behaviour (in other words, spy on you) and listen for sounds such as the opening of the fridge door before sharing that with others, without divulging your identity.
The intention is to serve as a "trigger" that will stimulate daily communication between users and their friends. It will also remind its users to phone or text their friends.
Whatever your "living noise" may be, soon there will be a robot able to cater for your needs.
Perhaps you won’t opt for the Furby toy that purrs at you or other robots that have expressive eyes and ask you about your day.
But you can count on it: a new friend designed for your quirks is probably being engineered for you right now.