Future tech

Can social robots help us live better lives?

Social robots will greet us, support us in old age, and may even make us laugh. But what exactly are they? And how can we keep them secure?

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C3PO, the Iron Giant… even The Terminator. We’ve been watching robots interact with humans in movies for years, but for many of us, that’s all it’s been: a futuristic dream. Now, after years of promises, prototypes and teasers, the era of social robots is finally here. But what are they? And how do they differ from the robots of today?

Social robots are bred for interaction

Robots are nothing new. They help in factories and warehouses, typically in highly structured environments with limited interactions with humans. And we’re grateful for that. Social robots, however, are designed to interact with us and show social behaviors. I’ll let SoftBank’s Pepper introduce itself.

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) mean robotics designers and manufacturers now have the power to translate psychological and neurological insights into algorithms. These allow robots to recognize voices, faces and emotions, as well as speak, make eye contact and a host of other things that humans do with each other. There you have it: a social robot.

They’re a step up from droids and warehouse robots whose sole functions are task-based, and they’re going to revolutionize how we live our lives. There are already 15,000 Pepper robots worldwide that are helping to check people into hotels and take customer orders at restaurants (amongst other things). But with the addition of Temi and Loomo – next-generation personal assistants, think Amazon Echo with legs – our social spheres might soon contain a bot or two.

Social robots can benefit society

We’re already seen the impact of robotics in industries like manufacturing, government and retail. But these machines don’t have the social capacity that this new wave of robots do. Here are a few of the latter’s uses in business and society.

Efficient eateries

Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district + tech giant SoftBank = a restaurant staffed entirely by Pepper robots. Yep, it’s the Pepper Parlor Café, where a group of social robots greet customers, chat with them and serve them. And there are plans for expansion. SoftBank is developing Nao and Whiz: the former will be on table dancing duties; the latter will clean the place until it’s spotless.

But how practical is it? You decide.

Hotels for the human-phobic

Keen to have as little human contact as possible? The Henn-na is the place for you – you won’t find a human in the gaff. Owner Hideo Sawada said the hotel, which is part of an amusement park in the Nagasaki prefecture, was built to highlight innovation. It’s staffed entirely by robots, who check customers in, take luggage to their rooms and make the beds. It’s ‘manned’ by an English-speaking dinosaur and a Japanese-speaking female bot. Take a look for yourself.

Social robots against loneliness

Perhaps one of the most poignant uses in today’s world. For many elderly and not so elderly, loneliness is a growing problem. In the UK, around 10 percent of Brits feel isolated, with London appointing a Minister for Loneliness in 2018.

Social robots have particular appeal for assisting the world’s growing elderly population. The PARO Therapeutic Robot, developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, which looks like a cuddly seal, is meant to reduce stress for patients in care facilities. Take a look for yourself.

Then you have Mabu (Catalia Health). This social robot is more of a wellness aide, reminding the elderly to take walks and medication and to call family members.

Robotic companions won’t replace human interaction, but for many, these friendly jumbles of metal, plastic and synthetic fur could be extremely helpful.

Social robots in space

Space, I would imagine, is a lonely and potentially stressful place for an astronaut, which is why the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON) was invented. In 2018, it flew to an international space station alongside a lucky bunch of astronauts. In the process, it became the first-ever autonomous free-floating robot at the station and the first-ever smart astronaut assistant. But what does it do? Developed by IBM, the German Aerospace Center and Airbus, CIMON serves several functions, from helping to find information and keeping track of tasks astronauts are doing on board to potentially assisting the teams in bonding.

Now, CIMON-2 has burst onto the scene, promising to be the next step for social robots. According to its manufacturers, it has better hardware and software, notably the introduction of the IBM Watson Tone Analyzer. This means CIMON-2 can understand and analyze the conversations of astronauts to see how they’re feeling – if they’re feeling joyful, or if something makes them angry, and so on. Here it is in action.

But as with any new technology, the risks are fresh and need addressing before social robots reach peak uptake. As Dmitry Galov believes:

Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence mean manufacturers can create complicated cyber-physical systems for various purposes. The security of robotic products, including social robots, is imperative for the next generation. Many experiments are underway, but security is not always at the core. When prototypes turn commercial, manufacturers are responsible for protecting their customers.

Dmitry Galov

Security Researcher, Kaspersky

Risks of social robots

As with all AI-powered technologies, cybersecurity is a considerable risk; recent research by the University of Ghent and Kaspersky found no different. Although the specifics of their findings may surprise some, first things first, let’s tuck into this.

The researchers found a new and unexpected dimension of risk associated with robotics: social impact. The research focused on the effects of a specific social robot designed to interact with humans, which they placed in two different scenarios.

Robots in not-so-safe spaces

In the first part of the study, the robot was placed near a secure entrance of a building in the center of Ghent. It asked staff if it could follow them through the door. (For context, usually, this area could only be accessed by certain personnel.) Not all staff complied with the robot’s request, but 40 percent did unlock the door and keep it open for the robot to waltz in. Hhhmmm. Worse so, when they positioned the robot as a pizza delivery person, staff were less inclined to question why it needed access to the secure area.

Interrogation bots

The second part of the study focused on how easily the robot could get sensitive information typically used to reset passwords (like your dog’s name). Alarmingly, with all but one participant, the robot managed to rack up personal data at the rate of one item per minute. Which goes to show, as your mother said, you shouldn’t share secrets with strange robots you don’t know.

Well, there you have it: social robots. Whether their impact will be positive or negative remains to be seen, but we do know that they’re numbers are set to grow. Worldwide sales of consumer robots are expected to grow to $19bn by the end of 2025 (from an estimated $5.6bn in 2018).

If you’re working in retail, healthcare or even space travel, social robots could help your business to innovate and reach the next level. But as with all new technologies, it’s essential to invest heavily in making them secure and safe for public consumption.

The real question is, could you see yourself living with one? (Who could say no to this face?)

Find out more

Read Kaspersky’s proof of concept study on the potential of social robots to persuade and manipulate.

About authors

Ryan Loftus is a freelance writer specializing in topics like technology, climate change, and the future of agriculture. He's interested in farming advancements and how they can help combat global warming.