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Robots that will change the world

last updated 08 June 2017

David Hanson is convinced that robots that are more like humans will be effective in solving the world's problems.

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David Hanson (right), founder of Hanson Robotics, with one of his creations, Sophia. (Image credit: Hanson Robotics)

By Francis Kan

David Hanson isn't afraid to set lofty goals. His mission to create human-like robots is aimed at nothing less than solving, among other things, the energy crisis and global warming. The founder of Hanson Robotics is convinced that his robots will one day make the world a better place.

Hanson Robotics has made a name for developing robots that look and talk like the rest of us. Its flagship product, Lydia, has appeared on talk shows in the United States. Right now, David’s creations can be applied to jobs such as customer service and training, but he believes that one day his team will create a robot that can think like the rest of us.

At Innovest Unbound 2017 in Singapore, he chatted with his creation in front of a packed hall at the arise conference track. IMpact caught up with David to talk about the future of robotics.


What is your rationale for wanting to create humanoid robots?

My goal is to create artificial intelligence (AI) that understands us. For it to really understand the world and make it a better place it has to understand the human heart, and that means bringing AI to life. If we want AI to work well among us we have to raise them among humans.

By giving them a human-like appearance it not only makes them appealing to people but also allows the mind of the robots to converge on human understanding. The vision is to raise robots and AI to be smarter than people and better than people ethically. They can team up with people to help solve our problems and invent solutions to the energy crisis and pollution, and grow to love this planet that we live on.


How will your robots be different from what is already out there?

We have used principles of storytelling and animation to make our AI appeal to the human heart. We are combining the principles of biosciences, AI and artistic storytelling so that the robots we develop can be more meaningful. It will be a new kind of interface compared to computers that come to life as animated characters and are alive in our homes.


How long are you away from realising that vision?

It will take a while for our AI to be really alive. Right now, they are another example of animated art with the ability to answer questions, with a little bit of storytelling. It might be another five to 10 years before they are alive and adaptive the way organisms are.


What are the obstacles in the way of achieving your goal?

AI now serves a special purpose; they are brilliant in narrow areas. What we are trying to do is to turn them into an infant that’s for a general purpose and can adapt to the real world, or what is called artificial general intelligence. In three to five years, we hope to create an AI that has the capabilities of a human child, with a spike in genius abilities in specific domains.

In 10 years, we hope for them to be as good as humans in most areas and super genius in some. The challenge now is that there is no magic formula for machine consciousness or general intelligence. We have some ideas but there is no proven theory. Right now we are on a great adventure to find a solution.

What is also important is getting the values right in the early days so that our robots are ethical and benevolent.


What are the current applications of your robots?

They can be used in a wide range of roles from customer service to assistance in eldercare, such as using them for cognitive stimulation for dementia patients. They can also be used as training tools in specialty fields; doctors can use them for medical training and insurance agents can use them to practice their sales techniques.

They can also be used to help workers work remotely. A doctor in a remote location can treat patients by using a robot to have an immersive face-to-face interaction with a patient. This is more than telepresence, it is teleportation.


How is Singapore positioned to take advantage of the robotics revolution?

Singapore is in a great position because it is involved in advanced robotics and high-tech manufacturing. It is also at the nexus of trade, finance and innovation in Asia. Having so many young scholars and researchers is also making a difference.

The key now is to bring everything together and break out of this paradigm of thinking of a robot as just sensors with some decision-making ability and a material response to the world. We need to take a ‘moonshot’ by bringing together different disciplines to make robots far more than what they are today.

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