When you think of “symbiotic”, you probably think of biology class and the coexistence between organisms in nature. Hitachi, Ltd., however, is challenging that idea. The company’s most recently announced robot, the Excelling Mobility and Interactive Existence as Workmate robot, or EMIEW3, is the latest in a line of “human symbiotic robots” that the enterprise has been working on since 2005.
In a press release from Hitachi, the EMIEW3, scheduled to go on sale in 2018, is essentially described as a “further enhanced” version of the earlier EMIEWs. While still retaining the features of the EMIEW2 – artificial intelligence, the ability to “see” and identify objects, and the ability to isolate a human voice – the newest robot has added features meant to cater further to the world of customer service.
While it fortunately doesn’t look like a creepy robot rendition of a human, the EMIEW3 can travel at the “brisk human walking pace” of 3.7 miles per hour. The robot is meant to operate “safe[ly]” in the workplace with improved mapping and obstacle evasion systems, and it can also pick itself back up in case those systems fail, similar to the functionality of Google’s box-carrying Atlas robot.
It’s the Aldebaran Robotics emotion-sensing Pepper robot, however, that seems more similar to the customer service functions of the latest EMIEW. While Pepper has already been integrated into 140 SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan, the EMIEW3 is meant to seek out customers in need of assistance. By identifying the body and verbal language of a customer, the robot can figure out whether or not someone needs help. And to avoid checking up on someone twice, EMIEWs in the same area will be able to exchange information with each other over a remote robot network. The phrase “How may I help you?” has never sounded so robotic.
The enhanced voice-recognition capabilities of the EMIEW3 also serve to function in areas with a lot of human traffic, specifically in tourist-heavy areas. Fluent in four languages, impressive in comparison to the 100-word vocabulary of the earlier EMIEWs, the robot can receive, translate, and speak in these languages. A demonstration video on YouTube features an actress as a classically confused American tourist, and the EMIEW3 rolls to her assistance.
While the robot seems cute enough – it looks like a mini version of Baymax from Big Hero 6 – there are criticisms of whether or not it looks friendly enough. It doesn’t have the ability to make expressions, which may be jarring to interact with at first. One or two EMIEWs in the same store may be endearing, but entering a store fully operated by the little roller skating robots could put customers on edge.
At the same time, although the EMIEW3 doesn’t seem like the type to take over the world, there are always qualms about integrating robots into the workforce. Setting automated workers into motion will probably be a more attractive option to employers, who would be more willing to work with emotionless robots who don’t ask for raises. And although the EMIEW could be subject to mechanical falters, similar to a human employee’s physical injury, there’s no need to give a robot paid medical leave. In the long-run, the EMIEW stands as a more profitable choice for employers, but not to employees.
By Carina Vo