Service robots with “emotions”

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Lots of people wouldn’t refer to autonomous vacuum cleaners or lawnmowers as robots. But that doesn’t make them any less popular. The next generation of rolling “custodians” with big eyes comes much closer to the science-fiction visions of the 1960s.

During the next few years, most household robots will more or less be bulky electrical helpers that vacuum the floor, cut the lawn or scrub the grill. According to a study recently released by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), their numbers are expected to increase to 31 million worldwide—with sales valued at 13 billion US dollars—by 2019. Vacuum cleaners and floor cleaners will account for a 96-percent share of the market, with lawnmowers and pool cleaners lagging far behind in second and third place.

Play and care

The sales curve for toy robots, remote-controlled multimedia robots and research and education robots for private use is also expected to see a sharp increase. The 1.7 million units sold last year are expected to increase to a total of eleven million units between 2016 and 2019. Toy and hobby robots account for 70 percent of the entertainment segment.

“Non-human” support for the elderly or disabled such as Obi, the robotic feeding device from the US company Desin that sells for 4,500 US dollars, may still be considered a rarity, having sold just 4,700 units. However, starting at such a low level also leaves room for some impressive growth—i.e. 34 percent from 2014 to 2015. From 2016 to 2019, the company expects to sell 37,500 units and generate 97 million US dollars in sales.

Service robots with big eyes

That estimate may also be conservative. Just last week, the Japanese Ministry for the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) sent out invitations to the “World Robot Summit” in 2020 to promote the use of modern robot technologies in society.

If it were up to the Japanese government, the “robot revolution” that was declared just a few years ago would have the hardworking helpers installed in Japanese society and make Japan the leading country for industrial and service robots. Between now and 2020, the market for service robots is expected to increase by a factor of twenty to 1.2 trillion yen (some 10 billion euros).

And we’re not just talking about a few oversized discusses scurrying between chair legs in search of dust. New generations of intelligent robots will also be able to perform much more “intelligent” tasks. They meet with widespread approval in robot-crazed Japan.

Pepper, Zenbo and Co.

The initiative is already bearing fruit. Softbank Robotics—a subsidiary of Softbank, Japan’s leading telecommunications and media group—already has a series of field-tested service robots available. The one that is known the best answers to the name “Pepper.” Just less than 1.2 meters in height, it not only maneuvers around without any problem, it also features sophisticated sensors and camera technology that allows it to recognize and respond appropriately to human emotions.

In the middle of last year, Softbank sold 1,000 of these humanoid robots within one minute. Which is no surprise, given that they cost just 1,415 euros. Although, cloud and guarantee services cost approximately 180 euros per month on top of that.

Right now, Pepper still primarily performs business tasks. In the meantime, it is also available outside Japan. As a sales assistant, product promoter or receptionist, it creates a pleasant atmosphere in Taiwan and Europe, as well.

Pepper’s latest competitor also comes from Taiwan. However, computer giant ASUS is sending its Zenbo robot into people’s homes. For just 599 US dollars, it reads stories, helps in the kitchen and is a companion for the elderly. Like many Japanese models, its giant eyes and almost childish appearance adhere to the aesthetic concept of “kawaii” (Japanese for loveable, cute or attractive).
Does Germany need to wake up?

Germany appears to have slept through this trend. At least that is the allegation made in a recently report published by the Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI). Their demand: More political attention for service robots. After all, they are expected to catch up to industrial robots in global market volume no later than 2025.

Indeed, many universities and research institutes have been working in this area for quite some time. Although they have failed to make the jump to application. Be that because the gap between academia and industry is too large, or because truly useful functions cannot be realized at competitive prices.

Nevertheless, there is a modular, almost humanoid robot assistant called Care-O-bot that was developed by Fraunhofer IPA. Now in its fourth generation, it can be manufactured affordably in small batch sizes. The symbiosis of design and engineering and of function and emotion are supposed to make its counterpart want to interact. For a few weeks now, a charming Care-O-bot named “Paul” has been welcoming customers to the Saturn market in Ingolstadt and taking them to the products that they want.

 

Service robot pepper (Image: Aldebaran)

A pleasant breakfast together with Pepper. (Image: Aldebaran).