These robots have nuts, bolts and some serious career prospects…
Inkha the Receptionist
Anyone who visited King’s College London between 2003 and 2014 may recognise the long eyelashes, single earring and metallic face of one of its former staff members. This is Inkha. She’s in the Robots exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, and her CV is weighty.
She was the receptionist at King’s for almost 11 years before being donated to the museum. But now, with a Blue Peter appearance and global tour under her bolts, she’s a bit of a celebrity spokesperson.
There’s something else you should know about Inkha:
“Oh, she’s a handful,” says Kat Dibbits, the museum press and PR manager. “She shouts if you make her jump and rarely likes anything you’re wearing.”
Sure enough, Inkha is quick to critique my outfit. And I’m midconversation when she shouts, “Is that paint drying over there?” and demands to be taken to the nearest bar for “lubrication”.
But robots don’t have personalities – she’s just made this way. An attitude problem is hardly an attribute you’d look for when hiring, so why do it? Well, because it’s funny.
Ben Russell, lead exhibition curator, says, “People like character. It’s making Inkha something you want to interact with, even if you only stick around to see if she bitches about your eyeliner.”
Inkha’s cheek worked at the university, and she could be reprogrammed with manners for a more formal setting. Either way, she could competently dispense useful information and proved quite capable managing an entry-level job.
Should we feel threatened? Russell thinks not.
“What Inkha was doing was taking the very simple jobs and freeing up the rest of the staff to do something more interesting.” This technology enables robots like Inkha to perform the tasks we all dread – issuing instructions or reading terms and conditions. She could be the future of delegation.
Robina the Carer
If you want proof that you don’t have to stick with the career path you originally set out on, look to Robina.
Built by Toyota as one of their partner (social) robots, she fits their vision of the sort of androids we might all own one day. The role she held for a number of years was as a tour guide at the Toyota Kaikan Museum, but she was originally designed to be a carer.
Robina was given perfectly dexterous hands, able to hold a pen and even write a signature. She can read and recognise 20,000 Japanese words (that’s about as many words as the average English-speaking adult uses in their vocabulary). There are sensors fitted beneath her skirt, so she’s able to navigate on her own without bumping into things.
In a care home or hospital she could carry out simple but essential tasks such as fetching medicines, serving meals, even transporting patients between wards, though she has not been used in such a setting just yet.
Dibbits also points out that Robina wouldn’t have to deal with the emotional strain and physical exhaustion that human medical workers experience. “If she was dealing with a volatile patient, she wouldn’t get upset. Her feelings would never be hurt and she’d be able to carry on delivering essential care round the clock.”
But this does raise ethical concerns. “Would you be happy for Robina to look after a relative in hospital? Would you trust one of these things?” Russell asks.
It’s a fair point – we all know the positive effect a great nurse can have when we’re unwell and away from home. We’re also not used to seeing robots yet. “If she rolled down a hospital ward, people would get out of their beds and run in the opposite direction!” he adds.
So she probably won’t be giving you a sponge bath any time soon, but bringing you a sandwich? Maybe.
Kodomoroid the Newsreader
The news is supposed to be impartial and unbiased. Technically. But when unconscious eye-rolls and Freudian slips relating to Jeremy Hunt are caught on camera, it’s clear to see where allegiances actually lie.
Surely, then, a robot like Kodomoroid could be a blessing? She certainly looks human – in fact, some of the other androids in the Robots exhibition that are programmed to interact with and respond to people spend a lot of their day trying to get her attention. But Kodomoroid will simply read aloud whatever information is given to her, no questions asked. Piers Morgan going off on a rant? Kodomoroid’s not fazed.
But Russell isn’t so sure. “Trust is a colossal issue,” he says. “With a human, you know approximately where they’ve come from. With a robot, you have no idea what assumptions have been built into it. “A robot can be a distraction. It can make you take your eye off the ball. You’d see a robot newsreader and everyone would go, ‘Whoa, that’s cool,’ but then what you’ve done is take all that journalism and fact-finding, and concealed it behind a straw man.”
Kodomoroid is a test model and hasn’t been used by any media yet. And until more advanced AI is developed, newsreaders are likely to remain human.
So what could this technology do? “Again, it comes down to what we’re happy for robots to do,” says Russell. “As it stands, they’re well-equipped for basic communication roles such as reception jobs.” These more lifelike machines are also hitting headlines for another career route: the sex trade.
“There’s much controversy about sex robots,” says Russell. “But it’s fascinating. There’s a lot of psychology involved in whether people would ever be able to get across that gap between real human and robot.” I ask a security guard standing near Kodomoroid’s display if he likes her. “Nah,” he says, eyeing her cautiously. “She’s creepy.”
Lucy the Intellect
Most robots lead sheltered lives, kept behind closed doors in a controlled laboratory. Lucy, on the other hand, has lived.
She was built as a hobby, which means she’s been the victim of much trial and error – she’s seen things, been outside, tried different skills. Lucy did, at one point, have skin. She was loosely modelled on an orangutan before she was accidentally dropped in a river.
“Self-taught tinkerer” Steve Grand created Lucy to see if he could make her learn and develop as a child would. It’s no easy task – Lucy is equipped with 50,000 artificial neurons to help her process information, compared to the 100 billion neurons in a human brain.
As Grand says in his book Growing Up With Lucy, “Trying to build a practical, artificial lifeform single-handedly is either brave or foolhardy.” But it did work. A bit. Over several years, Lucy a banana and an apple, without being programmed or ‘taught’ what to look for.
Her appearance is quite simple these days – small torso, short arms, a hollow head with mismatched eyes – but her programming is remarkable. According to Russell, “It’s moving in the direction of being able to approach a robot and engage in spontaneous conversation, as you would with a young child.”
We are all faced with artificial intelligence every day. Our smartphones, our thermostats and even our online shopping experiences adapt to our habits. The thing is, these are all computers, not robots. That’s what makes Lucy so exceptional. Her technology is an exploration into how the human mind evolves,and might teach us a lot about our own learning.