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Social Innovation

Robot-helpers and the future

    Rachel Jones, Hitachi Europe's Senior Strategy Designer, talks to us about Hitachi's robot EMIEW3, and what the widespread uptake of AI and machine learning will mean for the future.

    With so much hype around artificial intelligence (AI), we sometimes forget that the AI revolution isn’t complete yet. Whilst there is no doubt that they are set to play a big role one day, AI enabled technologies, such as robots, are still surrounded by many questions, including how they can be integrated into our society and what it will mean for the future.

    We had the opportunity to ask Hitachi Europe’s Senior Strategy Designer Rachel Jones about Hitachi’s star robot EMIEW3 and her predictions for the integration of robots into society, as well as the wider impact AI is going to have in the future.

    Hitachi's humanoid robot EMIEW3 recently came to Europe for the first time – what is EMIEW3 all about?

    EMIEW3 is Hitachi’s friendly customer services robot, able to spot people in need of help, using its cloud-connected brain and surveillance cameras, and autonomously approach them to offer assistance. It was trialled last year at one of Tokyo’s biggest airports – Haneda Airport – where it assisted those travelling through the airport and communicated with customers in both English and Japanese. It is also being tested in shopping malls and it has now arrived in the UK for the first time, which is very exciting.

    What is Hitachi hoping to learn from these trials?

    These trials are helping to give us a first-hand sense of people’s attitudes to robots, their initial reactions, and to see if they find them genuinely helpful. It’s also leading to some really interesting learnings about the interactions between humans and robots. The design of EMIEW3, for example, is very conscious of this – rather than replicating a human in both look and size, which some people find off-putting, we have opted to create a robot which is small, approachable, friendly and accessible.

    Aside from EMIEW3, what other work is Hitachi carrying out around robots and AI?

    At Hitachi, we are conducting research and development on both simpler ‘question and response’ AI, as well as multi-purpose AI, which is at an earlier stage of development and currently involves learning how to make judgments. EMIEW3 is just one concept; we are currently working with partners to see how EMIEW3 can contribute to improving people’s everyday lives. In the future, with machine learning, these robots might supplement human work, by providing cleaning at home or keeping elderly people company. With the predicted population growth, combined with the fact that people are living for longer, society desperately needs new technologies such as robot carers to help alleviate the pressure on our public services.

    Do you think there are cultural barriers to the uptake of robots?

    EMIEW3 speaks a number of languages, so while that isn’t an issue, there are differences in the cultural acceptance of new technologies such as robots, and their gradual integration into society. For example, people in Japan are much more open to innovative technologies and therefore the introduction of robots in certain capacities, particularly in care to help manage its ageing population, is generally embraced more positively. In Europe and the UK, the reception of robots appears to be more cautious. This raises broader questions about the future of society, including where we want to go with new technologies and how we see robots fitting in.

    Where do you see AI and machine learning having the biggest impact in the imminent future?

    AI and machine learning impact us today mainly in the consumer space, such as advertising on Google and Facebook. This may seem insignificant, but think how it has influenced recent political events. Looking to the future, AI and machine learning techniques will become part of our everyday infrastructure by improving our services, whether that is being able to predict maintenance on our railways, provide travel schedules that vary depending on the number of passengers that need transport, the way supply chains operate in manufacturing, and the way energy is distributed and used.

    Rachel Jones