What kind of robots will live among us in the future?

The expert: Bruno Bonnell. Bruno Bonnell is the founder and director of Robopolis, a distributor of robotic products, president of SYROBO, the French federation of professional and personal service robotics, and the CEO of Awabot.

Will we have anthropoid robots as friends?
Bruno Bonnell: Old fantasies die hard – certainly in the case of humanoids. But consider what George Lucas thinks: it’s R2-D2, not C-3PO which is of most use to humans because it can do lots of things: assist pilots, open doors, send messages, and so on. We want to believe in anthropoids, but we are a long way off them at the moment. R2-D2 does simpler things than C-3PO – tasks that are better suited to machines. In years to come, these are the kind of tools that will develop because they have a better price-to-performance ratio.

Robots that understand emotionsRobots in human form have been studied for a long time in Japan. They can now dance, like Honda’s Asimo, and are also envisioned as companions and assistants for invalids and people who are ill. Their appearance is said to enable better interaction with people. We can go even further with robots that can recognize our emotions and adapt to them. A robot called Pepper, created in France by a company called Aldebaran, is exploring this route. A humanoid mounted on castors, Pepper identifies the humans around it, performs face recognition on them, and analyzes their gestures and facial expressions. From this it deduces their emotional state, from happiness to surprise, anger, doubt and sadness, and adjusts its behaviour, for example “by playing your favourite song to try and lift your spirits,” as the company explains. The robot displays a range of behaviour (especially in terms of gestures and tone of voice), observes the habits of the people around it, and asks unknown people questions to get to know them better. Pepper was custom-designed for a Japanese company, the mobile phone operator Softbank, which has since acquired Aldébaran, and will be used to welcome visitors at points of sale.

And yet these android robots are starting to appear. Do they really not have a future?Of course – they are very useful and could even be essential! They are the Formula 1 of roboticsand engineers are surpassing themselves to create them. But a humanoid also has to know and understand an enormous amount of things about its environment to be a companion. Imagine everything you need to do to obey the simple command “go and get me a glass of chilled water.” You have to work out the water is in the fridge, go to the fridge, open it, identify the bottle among the others in there, open it, find a glass, and so on.
To read: Will operations be carried out by robots in the future?

The Pepper robot boasts a range of software, including facial and expression recognition. It is designed to gather information on the people it knows (by observing their gestures and asking them questions), try and determine their emotional state, and adopt appropriate behaviour. It represents an avenue of research into human-to-robot interactions. © Aldebaran
So what use would a household robot be?
It has to carry out specific tasks it is well suited to: washing floors or windows, gardening, or other household tasks. In the future, a family may therefore have several robots. We should not try to recreate a previous system with new technology. For example, we have designed a conference room for telepresence robots and installed it in a basement. It’s nothing like a standard conference room. In 30 or 40 years’ time, furniture will have adapted to these robots’ presence. Beds may have a standard height so that vacuum cleaners can fit under them, and windows will be designed so that automatic cleaners can work on them easily.

The humble Roomba robot is simply a vacuum cleaner. It learns to recognize the rooms it occupies and can then take care of its tasks all on its own. This is modern robotics: designed for specific uses with practicality in mind. © Robopolis.

Will the growth of robots dictate changes to our environment?Yes – this will happen naturally. Driverless cars, for example, are currently classic models, but I’m sure that they will have completely different shapes, uses and performance in the future. They might be cubic, spherical or other shapes – but they won’t look like cars as we know them today. Road infrastructure and towns will adapt to them.
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