A promising road ahead... with robots

ROLLING ON: A Starship Technologies commercial delivery robot crossing a street during a live demonstration in Dusseldorf, Germany last month. The delivery robots are already in use on the streets of Dusseldorf, Bern and London.
A promising road ahead... with robots

SYNTHETIC WELCOME: Pepper the robot holds the hand of a newborn baby at AZ Damiaan hospital in Ostend, Belgium.
A promising road ahead... with robots

CHATBOT MONK: Master Xian Fan holding a discussion with robot monk Xian'er at Longquan Temple in Beijing.


    Jul 15, 2016

    A promising road ahead... with robots

    ROBOTS that act and respond to external stimuli on their own, or autonomous robots, are increasingly being put to real-life uses worldwide.

    They are being deployed in delivery services, healthcare, home safety and even religion.

    Advancements in robotics, such as in sensor systems, have helped make the machines more perceptive.

    A fully autonomous robot may be able to operate without human intervention for prolonged periods of time, as well as gather information about its surroundings and adapt to situations accordingly.

    One such robot can be spotted on the streets of Dusseldorf in Germany, Bern in Switzerland and London.

    In these cities, self-transporting droids are being sent out to deliver food and parcels - the first time the technology is used to deliver real orders to paying customers, reported Bloomberg last week.

    The trial, which kicked off in July, comes after tests in 12 countries over the past nine months, it added.

    Built by Starship Technologies, the robots ply the sidewalks and have encountered more than 400,000 people without incident, said the company in a press release.

    "Nobody likes to spend hours waiting for the courier just to have a parcel delivered," said Frank Rausch, chief executive of German parcel delivery firm Hermes.

    "Individually scheduled delivery services will become increasingly important within the coming years," he added.

    In Belgium, humanoid robots named Pepper have begun working as receptionists in several hospitals since June.

    Pepper can detect whether it is speaking to a man, woman or child, said The Daily Mail.

    The robot helper can also take patients to the department they wish to go to.

    It is also able to respond to human emotion.


    Interest in autonomous robots has been climbing in recent years.

    It gained mainstream attention earlier this year when Google's game-playing AlphaGo machine beat South Korean Go master Lee Se Dol in a highly publicised match-up.

    However, the rise of robots is not without controversy.

    Last week, in the United States, the Dallas police came under scrutiny after they sent a "bomb robot" to take down a suspect who killed five officers and wounded seven others.

    The bomb was carried by a robot into a carpark where the suspect was cornered, according to local media reports.

    While this method is used in war zones, it was believed to be the first time a robot was used by domestic police to kill someone, a report in The Washington Post said.

    And with more robots popping up in factories, some workers fear their jobs may soon be made redundant.

    A study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) released last week said more than half of workers in five Southeast Asian countries are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation in the next 20 years.

    The countries are Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

    The garment industry is particularly at risk, as well as sectors such as automotive and auto parts, electronics and retail.

    "Robots are becoming better at assembly, cheaper and increasingly able to collaborate with people," the ILO was quoted by Reuters as saying.


    However, other experts noted that "smart" robots can help businesses grow and even create new jobs for humans.

    If a robot is taking phone calls, the office worker is free to do other tasks, such as meeting clients, cited a report in The New Zealand Herald newspaper on Monday.

    Robots are "unlikely to compete with humans in terms of social and emotional intelligence", it pointed out.

    In addition, the "use of robots is creating new types of jobs focused on their effective maintenance", Chris Gear, chief technology officer at GKN Aerospace, was quoted as saying by the Financial Times on Monday.

    The shift to robots can also spur innovation, such as new ways to plug social needs.

    One example is an intelligent robot by Chinese developers that helps elderly residents detect intruders, gas leaks and other dangers at home.

    The bot, called Da Zhi, can recognise faces, detect odours and has sensors that enable it to "see" and "hear", reported China Daily. It is slated to be launched by year-end.

    A robot monk, Xian'er, also made waves earlier this April.

    Global media outlets, including The New York Times, featured the bot, which holds religious conversations with people. Xian'er can be found at the Longquan Temple in Beijing.

    Xian Fan, who heads the temple's Comic Centre, told Beijing News that the use of artificial intelligence is aimed at spreading Buddhist teachings in a modern way.

    On home ground, the Infocomm Development Authority is looking at using chatbots to help users navigate online government services in Singapore. It will work with Microsoft on the technology, The Straits Times reported on Wednesday.

    According to Qiao Hui, deputy head of the Robot Group of Harbin Institute of Technology in China, the future of such "service robots" is bright.

    The Internet of Things, where physical objects can be linked to networks, provide good opportunities for the sector, he told China Daily.