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Roboy, the robot lounge and why robots need better marketing

Imagine a relaxing bar or lounge space, rather like the business class lounge in an airport – but staffed entirely by robots. As you enter, you are greeted by name by the robot receptionist, who remembers your preference for sitting by the window in a non-smoking area. You are guided to your table by a robot steward, leaving you to discuss the range of available wines in detail with the robot sommelier, an expert in South American reds in particular. You might order from the robot bartender, or sit back and relax whilst the low-flying drones deliver your drinks to the table.

This the Robot Lounge, planned to open in a major Asia metropolis some time in 2016, providing us with a taste of the future and a chance to interact and get comfortable with robots.

Because robots have something of an image problem. The very word has negative connotations, conjuring up visions of cold machines replacing humans and stealing their jobs, emotionless Hollywood-style enforcers or merciless military drones. We tend to forget just how much we have benefited from those invisible robots behind the mass automatized production that has changed our world so fundamentally, bringing us mobile phones, televisions, cars, planes – all the toys we love and couldn’t imagine living without.

Now robots are moving out from behind the closed walls of the distant factory floor and into our living spaces, bringing us into direct contact with each other on a much more regular basis. Maturing technologies, microprocessors driving core functionality into ever smaller spaces, falling costs and the convergence of engineering, business and science interests have brought robotics to the edge of large-scale commercial viability.

And as robots become both more sophisticated and more affordable, managing our environment, performing tasks and vying for space to make our lives easier and more pleasant, we need to learn how to interact with them on an emotional, intellectual and practical level. This is the idea behind the Robot Lounge – and behind Roboy, the poster boy and messenger for a new breed of interactive robot.

What makes Roboy so special is the intelligence in his tendons and muscles, not just in his articulations, which allows him to mirror humans through natural movements and facial expressions. Roboy demonstrates simultaneously the advances and limitations of cutting-edge robotics: he is not a multi-functional humanoid robot doing all the housework for us, but an example of how pleasant, interesting and beneficial interactions with robots can be. He signposts future possibilities, dependent on development and investment patterns, but he’s also one of the first of his kind most people who meet him have ever touched or experienced.

It’s time to change that sometimes negative perception of robots, to understand better how we can interact with them and how they will influence our future. Both Roboy and the Robot Lounge aim to test current hypotheses of the future, allowing us to actively participate through our emotional and intellectual experiences and feedback. We can engage in their design, rather than acting merely as passive consumers; through deep learning and pattern learning methods, we can help to shape the next generation of robots.

These robots will improve our lives through emotional exchange, through happiness and interaction rather than merely cleaning or cooking for us. If that sounds strange, consider how we currently get happy staring into the small screens in our hands all day, or driving our cars. Robots are in some ways just another machine, albeit with a higher degree of autonomy than the phone, which is only mobile as a parasite in our pockets, and with much more sophisticated, higher-quality interaction.

Robots extend our ongoing emotional engagement with machines. It’s been demonstrated that a human experiences real pain at a neurologically-measurable level when his or her new car, for example, is scratched. The hugely personal relationship we have with our mobile phones – accompanying our every waking moment, source of information, communication, entertainment, even identity – shows just how much we both depend on and invest in machines.

On the one hand, robots are simply more complicated bits of technology, bigger machines, machines with tremendous potential to change our daily lives and make us happier, but on the other, there is a fundamentally new quality to them because they are physical systems moving – to some extent autonomously – in the real world. It’s vital that governments, private sector companies and individuals understand their potential. To foster and fund technological developments in artificial intelligence. But also to interact with robots, and use that experience to actively engage in shaping the future.

Which is why I am looking forward to speaking to public and private sectors from across the global ICT community at the Leadership Summit on the Future at ITU Telecom World 2014 – and introducing them to Roboy, of course.

Rolf Pfeifer, Prof. em., University of Zurich