EMIEWInterviewsSmart SpacesThe case for humanoid service robots

3 years ago14 min

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Dr Robert Ellis, Research Engineer, Global Centre for Social Innovation, Hitachi Europe

Robert Ellis, helped by an undeniably cute robot, explains why Hitachi are experimenting with the development of customer service robots and how they are going about this.



Listen to this interview or download the podcast.

Interview transcript

Read the transcript of Dr Ellis’s interview on developing customer service robots.

Show transcript

Jo Frearson (Business Reporter)
Hi, EMIEW. Thanks for being here and talking to us today.

EMIEW (Hitachi robot)
Thanks for having me. I’m very happy to be here. I always love getting out of the office and meeting new people.

Robert Ellis (Hitachi)
Hitachi decided to create EMIEW, I think maybe not for one reason, but, you know, there’s a multitude of reasons. So I think initially, it was for the kind of mechanical and electronic design challenge of how do you make a robot, but then there’s much more sort of insight into the design of a humanoid robot.

So what should it look like? You know, should it be really tall and imposing? Is it meant to be a guard or should it be small and childlike to get people to come and talk to it?
So I think maybe there’s an overarching theme of uncovering or examining the human-robot interaction. So why do humans need robots? Do humans need robots? And if they do, what kind of robot is suitable for that particular thing? So it’s as much an experiment as anything else to uncover those things.

I mean, the best example for how Hitachi goes about looking at user requirements is sort of the pilot project in Haneda Airport. For example, I’ve been working at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, where I helped lost passengers find their destinations. I was able to speak with customers in both English and Japanese, and I really enjoyed the experience. I can walk as fast as a human, so it’s easy for me to show people where to go.

Jo Frearson 
And how do people feel about getting help from a robot?

Ah, it depends. In Japan, people are very open to new technology. They see it as a positive thing, so they’re generally happy to see me.
EMIEW is in a sort of a localised area where people can come up and ask questions. And sort of in EMIEW’s demo today, EMIEW mentions, ah, Japanese people freely come and discuss kind of thing.

It’s an examination of these interactions. You know, it’s like ah, what happened? What were the most common questions? Were they dealt with?

And you know, by doing things like that, I think you can say, well, you know, maybe it worked in this situation or maybe it didn’t. Let’s try this type of pilot in another situation.
So I know there are multiple robots used in restaurants and hotels across Japan. And you know, if you visit these certain restaurants, you know, some robots are working– functioning.

Obviously, they’ve got it right. In other restaurants or places, they didn’t get it right.

So we don’t want to go through that same kind of thing. We don’t want to send an EMIEW everywhere and see what works. I think we want to sort of think it out a little bit. Where might EMIEW fit first of all and discuss that through, so we have the kind of nextperience-type design of use cases- this type of thing.

The airlines are happy with how EMIEW is operating. I know that some airlines have requested different colours to represent better their airline’s colours. But you know, as for other kind of, you know, pilots, we’ve yet to sort of really get into that in Europe actually.

So I know that there’s interest from again, airports here, looking at that, but I think maybe less about helping people. More about even things like surveillance– that kind of thing. So you know, it’s kind of a it’s a very nice looking drone. It doesn’t scare people walking around. OK, it can move around.

You know, there’s lots of things that we could look about experimenting, but the important thing is don’t go and try everything, all right? That generally doesn’t work.

Things that go into programming a robot are really complex. There’s an onboard system, which is governing how the robot can move, stand up, and turn around or know where it is. And that’s just for a start inside. And then when you start thinking about it needs to interact, you have to think about, well, what type of input should it need?

OK, so if we think about a human you know, we use our senses. So a robot needs to have its own senses. So you know, it has a microphone array. It has a camera– that kind of thing. But it’s not as simple as just recording what it sees and listening.

I have a remote brain consisting of a robotics IT platform, which can connect to cloud-based intelligent processing systems. I can also be connected to other robots in order for us to best provide the necessary services and guidance.

Jo Frearson
Do you think robots will ever replace humans?

Definitely not. Our job is to support humans, not replace them.

Robert Ellis
What we need to look at more and more is how EMIEW needs to interact with different people. So one of the issues that has sort of led to Japanese companies looking at robots is the ageing population, OK. There’s definitely value in caring for old people, caring in hospitals– this kind of thing- where the workforce is diminishing.

But that problem may only be unique to Japan or other Asian countries. It might not affect Europe. It might not affect America. So a robot designed for use in Japan might not be suitable for use in Europe, but we still don’t know what those interactions need to be.

So what is next for EMIEW is not necessarily about the technology. I think the technology is there. And you know, EMIEW can perform all those type of things. What we need to know is how should EMIEW act? What should EMIEW be doing? How can EMIEW and any other robot like this actually help humans in different cultures, different societies, and different countries? So that’s the interesting question, I think.

Jo Frearson
So you’re more like partners then?

Absolutely. The best part of my job is helping people.

Robert Ellis
I think the future for service robots is still undetermined. Robots have a really important role and a really important place, but we need to carefully think where would a robot be better than an app on a phone? OK, where would a robot be better than a sign, which just says, this way to check in? OK, you have to think is there some value in putting a robot in a place of something else?

So I think the future is good and interesting, but it’s also difficult. And I think that difficulty is probably what makes it much more exciting than if it was just an easy thing to do. So yeah, the future– I hope it’s a good future for the service robots like EMIEW.

Jo Frearson
That’s really interesting, EMIEW. Very nice to meet you.

My pleasure. You never know. You might see me at a shopping centre near you soon. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed today’s forum. Thank you and goodbye.

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Published by Lyonsdown Ltd for Hitachi Europe Ltd. © Lyonsdown Ltd 2018