There was a time when the idea of an autonomous robot seemed pure fantasy – something imagined by fiction writers and brought to life on the television or movie screens. Not any more. From self parking cars and robotic vacuum cleaners that can navigate corners to Pepper, the humanoid robot that can be found in sushi shops and nursing homes and Aibo, the pet robot dog, robots are already among us and look like they will be here to stay in years to come.
In Japan, one of the world leaders in the development of jinkou chihou (artificial intelligence or AI) and robotics, robots are being developed at light-speed, largely to address the needs and shortages it faces. Carebots (robots to help with care giving duties) are being developed to cope with the country’s rapidly ageing population while service robots address the shortage in the labour force in specific areas.
The Malaysian robotics and Artificial Intelligence scene has also been getting more worldwide attention, says Dr Yeong Che Fai, a senior lecturer at the Center for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics at Universiti Teknology Malaysia Department of Control & Mechatronics Engineering.
“For example, local automation company DF Automation & Robotics Sdn Bhd has developed an automated guided vehicle that is NavWiz (navigation system) controller-enabled to move autonomously. DF is based in Johor and carried out all the design and manufacturing on its premises and provides competitive advantages comparable to any other robot maker. It has exported robots to Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Mexico,” says Dr Yeong.
He reckons that in Malaysia, manufacturing industries will benefit the most from robotics as it would reduce their dependency on the labour workforce.
“Some big manufacturing factories can have up to 10,000 humans. Robotics, automation, AI and big data can help to optimise the manufacturing process and improve efficiency. This benefit will be channelled back to the end user through better price and quality. He is confident however that this will not cause Malaysians to lose their jobs.
“In fact, robotics/AI helps in areas that Malaysians do not want to work in such as performing repetitive tasks and dangerous jobs. It also can increase efficiency. For example, in a manufacturing factory, an operator would need to push a 500kg trolley for a distance of up to 3km in a day.
“Not many operators want this job as it is tiring as well as dangerous. Thus, using robots is reasonable and justifiable,” he explains.
Robots for elderly care
Like Japan, our population is ageing too. Malaysia is projected to become an ageing nation by 2030 and we are already seeing signs of it with more and more reports of the elderly being abused and abandoned and caregivers feeling the strain of caring for both their children and parents. Using robots in caring for the elderly will help in three broad categories: serving and fetching, communication, and emotional support.
The Care-o-bot from German research organisation, Fraunhofer IPA, has been deployed in a number of German assisted living facilities where it ferries food and drinks to residents from the kitchen. It also keeps them entertained by playing memory games with them. Honda’s Asimo robot was also developed to assist humans perform tasks they can’t or need help with.
Nadine is a social robot who is the brain(robot)child of Swiss-Canadian computer graphics scientist Professor Nadia Thalmann. Nadine is designed to be a companion for the elderly as well as children with different needs.
Prof Thalmann says that isolation is one of the major issues faced by the elderly and while a social robot cannot and should not replace family or friends, the reality is that many old people, particularly those in nursing care or retirement homes, spend days on end alone.
“With a social robot like Nadine, at least they’d have some companionship. After all, sometimes all they want is to talk to someone and the social robot can listen and respond like a real companion does. It cannot replace humans, of course, but it is definitely better than nothing.
“The reality is many of us are miles away and cannot be there for our elderly all the time,” says the professor in an interview with The Star in 2016. Prof Thalmann is the founder and head of MIRAlab Research Laboratory at the University of Geneva and has been working on Nadine since 2013.
ElliQ is an active ageing companion bot. It’s desk-bound but can speak English and will remind you to take your medicines, walk about to stretch your limbs, tells you when your favourite TV show is on, alerts you when you’ve received a new message on your phone and she can even book your trips for you. She’s still in development though, so there’ll probably be a lot more she can do – like scare away that stray cat that’s messing up your plants.
Miro, the robotic dog, serves the function of pill regimen management, companionship and appointment reminders. But it also keeps an eye on the health status of its elderly companion - Miro will try talking to you and if you don’t respond, it will send a signal to the control hub alerting them of a problem.
Robobear is another humanoid robot that can help transfer seniors from the bed to a wheelchair. The nursing robot, which is still in the experimental phase and was designed by engineers from Japan’s research institution RIKEN, is also capable of lifting people.
Robot-assisted systems have been playing a role in medicine for quite some time. High-precision robots are used to direct X-rays precisely at the area to be irradiated, for example. Urologists and neurosurgeons are increasingly performing robot-assisted operations. Doctors are still in charge, but for better precision, they use robots.
In hospital wards, robotic transport systems are used to distribute food to beds, clear trays and drive themselves into the hospital kitchen. Hospital pharmacies use robotic systems to measure and pack medicines. Robots can also play a crucial role in rehabilitation. Hand of Hope is an intention-driven exoskeleton hand that focuses on improving motion of the hand and fingers in stroke victims, developed by Rehab-Robotics.
Ekso Bionics, a company that develops and manufactures powered bionic devices, is working on devices that can be strapped on as wearable robots to enhance the strength, mobility and endurance in rehabilitation.
We are getting closer by the day to self-driving cars. Although car makers and tech companies are sketchy about projections for when exactly we can all be driven at leisure, estimates range between the next five to 10 years. A news report recently quoted the Singapore transport minister as saying that driverless buses will appear on some roads in the island state from 2022.
The Symphony of the Seas cruise ship has a robotic bartender on hand to mix and hand you your drinks at their Bionic Bar. Made by Italian firm Makr Shakr, the mechanical mixologists can muddle, shake, strain, and serve cocktails made from any combination of 30 spirits and 21 mixers. The robots work in pairs and while they may not be able to break up fights, your drinks will be mixed with absolute precision.
Chinese restaurants have been replacing their workers with robots from as early as 2006. According to an article in Business Insider, even though there have been mishaps, the robots are still cheaper than human wait staff and are still a viable option – plus they’re a novelty and attract customers. Most recently, India launched its first robot-themed restaurant in Chennai. The place, Robot Theme Restaurant, serves pan-asian themed food, opened late last year and has been packed since it’s opening.