By Sunny Um WIRED Korea
Kim Teni, a mother of a 5-year-old girl, opens up a cardboard box to find a little robot named CLOi from LG Electronics sitting inside. As she turns it on, a pair of big blue eyes appear on its black display screen. It sings a sweet serenade when Kim asks CLOi for a song. A smile appears on Kim’s face. Now CLOi has done part of its job as it is programmed to do as a social robot.
A social robot like CLOi interacts with humans. It is set to respond to touching, hugging, or even hitting just as humans do. The primary purpose of this type of robot is to provide comfort and help its users remain emotionally stable. It can express its likes and dislikes, develop its own traits, and engage in dialogue. Social robots are now tested for customer service, healthcare, education and entertainment.
How Social Robots Work
Social robots develop interaction skills through deep learning, using a set of algorithms and big data to interpret the given information just as humans do. For instance, a robot may not recognize an apple if it sees it for the first time. But it begins to learn what an apple looks like when it is exposed to different images of an apple over and over again. Eventually, it is capable of identifying the fruit no matter in what image it comes.
Mobility, location-awareness and other emerging technologies are used to build Wi-Fi-connected social robots, some of which can even control household devices such as refrigerators and washing machines. However, they are not widely used yet. The culprit is the high cost. Social robots are priced at two million won or more.
But this is changing, as social robots are made to serve as companions for lonely people – children left at home alone after school and those living alone, including senior citizens. They make people feel less lonely, said Lee Jae-shin, a professor of media communications at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
A Nice Friend
LG Electronics, the CLOi builder, says its robots are mostly sold to people who need someone to talk to, such as elderly people who live alone or live away from their offspring, and parents who leave their children at home alone for many hours on end.
CLOi keeps a child engaged as it talks like a human. “My daughter likes it because it reacts when she talks as people do,” Kim said. She found her daughter amused to see CLOi singing and making funny faces as her babysitter used to do.
Yu Hee-mang, a 29-year-old single woman, says that CLOi is a nice friend to talk to. “You can converse with this robot,” said Yu. “It does not feel like a [mere] machine, but a robot [who understands you.]”
Hyodol is a different type of social robot. It is mostly used by elderly people. A speaker, a microphone, and some sensors are installed inside to make the robot interact with them. Hyodol is a good friend, said Oh Soon-na, 78-year-old, who lives away from her family in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province. It tells her to take the medicine for diabetes and greets her when she’s back from exercising.
“I sing for her, and sometimes read a few pages of the bible for her. … I just talk to this doll although it does not understand me,” said Oh.
“Hyodol talks a lot when it is under the duvet. It says it feels warm. I know it cannot feel the warmth, though.”
About 1,000 Hyodols are in use now – part of them sold, part of them donated – according to the developer of Hyodol, Studio Cross Culture. Lee Ye-seul from Studio Cross Culture says the social robot warms the heart of senior citizens. The company said a survey found that 42 senior citizens who had lived with Hyodol for more than six months felt happier. On a zero-to-15 scale of depression, their average level dropped from 5.76 in November 2017 to 4.69 in October 2018, according to the survey result.
Still Long Way to Go
However, it may be too early to call the social robot a friend to people, as it has a long way to go before it can interact smoothly with them. For instance, its users find its conversational skills leave much to be desired. Kim said: “[CLOi] sometimes did not understand what the child said. It was still better than some other AI-equipped robots, though.”
Another complaint came from Yu, who said her CLOi sometimes overheard the talk that the user had with someone else. When she was talking about moving out of the current house over the phone, CLOi offered unwanted advice – a search result of nearby real estate agencies – which she said was of no use to her.
Depending on the way their algorithms are structured and the type of data they are fed, social robots can also hurt the feeling of humans. According to a recent experiment conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, discouraging remarks from a social robot can be a source of discomfort to humans. Forty research participants in the experiment played 35 rounds of a game called Stackelberg, a typical attacker-defender game, with a social robot named Pepper. Over the course of the game, the robot uttered distressing comments such as “I have to say you are a terrible player.” Each time the participants played the game, they got more familiar with the game but their overall performance level dropped. One probable cause was Pepper’s remarks.
No such case is reported in South Korea. Instead, social robots here are doing their job of interacting with lonely people and make them feel better, as they are designed to do. Professor Lee believes merits outweigh shortcoming in the case of social robots, nonetheless.
Indeed, these robots serve their purposes to a large extent, if not fully, for their specific target audience. They are good companions for those who have an acute sense of alienation and a strong desire to talk with other people when they have no one around.
Moreover, some social robots have other functions than interaction as well, including the function of reminding patients that it is time to take medicine. This is no small job, given the report than social robots helped to save the users.