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Robots with human features may unsettle some people. But they’re coming.

This picture taken Thursday in Paris shows Pepper the robot giving information to people visiting the Viva technology event, which is dedicated to startup development, innovation and digital technology. Pepper has two large lenses for eyes and a complex package of face recognition and artificial intelligence software that makes interacting with it unnerving to some people.
This picture taken Thursday in Paris shows Pepper the robot giving information to people visiting the Viva technology event, which is dedicated to startup development, innovation and digital technology. Pepper has two large lenses for eyes and a complex package of face recognition and artificial intelligence software that makes interacting with it unnerving to some people. AFP/Getty Images

I try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to long-term trends in the computer industry, which is why a recent news report on events at Google has my attention. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently sold a company called Boston Dynamics, which specializes in what is increasingly being called “smart robotics.” The buyer was SoftBank, a Japanese telecommunications and internet firm that operates on very long time frames.

Two things of immediate interest here. First, although Google has invested in a number of robotics firms, its move into the market was promoted by Andy Rubin, who has since left the company. Perhaps Google is backing off its bet on robotics, in search of companies with a shorter time line of development. As for SoftBank, CEO Masayoshi Son continues to take the long view, declaring that within 30 years, robots will outnumber humans.

Just one symptom of that interest is a robot called Pepper, a diminutive humanoid with two large lenses for eyes and a complex package of face recognition and artificial intelligence software that makes interacting with it unnerving. Can a robot be emotional? That’s exactly what SoftBank is exploring with Pepper, who can recognize not just facial expressions but tones of voice, learning interactively and responding to the moods of people around it.

This is one direction robotics is heading – robots as friendly and somewhat pet-like, taking the edge off doomsday predictions of machines destroying humanity (think “Terminator” movies). What I find fascinating is that SoftBank is willing to sell the robot at a loss for the first four years but expects it (him? her?) to become a major revenue generator in 20 to 30 years. Enter “pepper robot” into YouTube and you can see the little creature at work.

This is still young technology but applications in homes and health care settings are obvious as robotics continues to develop. As for Boston Dynamics, it will be fascinating to see what happens with some of its existing models. If Pepper is engaging and sort of cute, a robot called Handle has been described by the company’s own CEO as “nightmare inducing.” Handle looks a bit humanoid but also has wheels for feet and is capable of fast moves, even jumping over obstacles. Plug “handle robot” into YouTube to see how you react.

The thing is, robots are coming into their own faster than most of us have realized. Boston Dynamics has produced robots that can run up to 20 mph and a military robot that can carry over a thousand pounds, designed to move with infantry units in combat. And it’s not just Boston Dynamics. At UC Berkeley, researchers have made what is being described as the most nimble-fingered robot yet, able to pick up objects almost flawlessly.

So is Masayoshi Son right that robots will one day – and only a few decades from now – outnumber the rest of us? It’s hard to see how factory floor automation taking advantage of the latest generation of robots won’t continue to be a driver, just as in Japan, robots for nursing home use are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and are likewise being marketed to people who might otherwise think in terms of a German shepherd or a house cat.

We have to couple all this with the strides in artificial intelligence that allowed a robot called AI-MATHS to take the annual entrance exam for Chinese universities (it was quicker than most students, but its grades were only so-so), and the Google-owned AlphaGo algorithms to continue to defeat professionals at the supremely difficult Chinese game of Go.

We have to decide how we feel about high-performing machines, particularly when we begin to use them for basic tasks (a Boston Dynamics robot called SpotMini has demonstrated, for example, that it can do the dishes). My guess is that we’re going to love having smart robots around, but be prepared for some attitude adjustments along the way.

Will smart robots eventually be “conscious?” How would we know? How you answer those questions may say a lot about how you’ll feel when a humanoid robot walks into your home.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at pag1877@gmail.com

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