11 January 2018

If this is the future of robotics, then count me in


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery.


Future of Work Technology


BBC2’s recent documentary ‘Six Robots & Us’ gives us a tantalising glimpse into how robots could change workplaces – for the better, writes Cathryn Newbery

The robots that most caught my attention during the festive period weren’t BB-8, C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Kaspar, Fabio, TutorBot and CareBot in BBC2’s two-part documentary Six Robots & Us. Because this is the first time I’ve seen how robots can genuinely – and non-sensationally – be integrated into real people’s personal and working lives.

The people taking part in the documentary – who included parents who hoped robots could help their children learn; a husband needing help to care for his disabled wife; and store owners who wanted to make their business stand out in the market – naturally greeted the robots with some initial scepticism, but mostly with excitement and a real keenness to make them a part of their lives.

ShopBot – an version of SoftBank’s Pepper, which has already been hired by a few bank branches in Asia – offers a glimpse into some of the most immediate workplace applications of robots. ‘Fabio’, as he was christened, was employed at Margiotta Food and Wine in Edinburgh to greet customers and help them locate goods. But his ability to recognise speech was hampered by the acoustics – it turns out that algorithms are less able to filter out competing conversations as humans are – and his directions were, occasionally, less than helpful. “Can you tell me where the milk is, please?” asked one game shopper. “You can find it at the fridges.” Hmm.

The owners wondered if Fabio would fare better at offering free brownie samples to shoppers – a task that quickly becomes tiresome and repetitive for humans. But no, it seems Fabio is easier to ignore than a real person; he successfully gave out just two samples in 15 minutes, compared to the 12 achieved by his human colleague. So, after just one week on the job, Fabio’s given his metaphorical P45. Clearly there’s some room for improvement before we see the local supermarket staffed by an army of ShopBots.

CareBot’s potential is even more tantalising, given that the UK is in the throws of a growing care crisis. This prototype, developed by the University of Salford, is able to make emergency phone calls and issue medication reminders. While testers Neil and Linda enjoyed CareBot’s companionship functions (particularly his repertoire of ‘dad’ jokes), a patchy internet connection made the alert function unreliable. The real-world testing also highlighted the prototype’s limitations; CareBot was, for example, unable to transport items from one location to another – despite being equipped with a grabber and serving tray. Three weeks and some clever coding later, and the researchers had reprogrammed CareBot to recognise locations in a home so he could, for example, take a cup of tea from the kitchen to the sitting room. This particular trial showed not only how vital real-world testing is to getting robots’ functions right, but also how far their development has to go before they are reliable and suited to our needs.

The two bots that showed the most promise – and biggest immediate impact – both worked with children. Kaspar has been designed to help autistic children get to grips with social interactions, while TutorBot, a variant of SoftBank’s NAO, was programmed with word games to help a child improve his speech. There were clear improvements in the two children’s ability to communicate and interact with humans after spending a few weeks with the robots. In fact, the programme makers revealed that Kaspar – instead of returning to his home in the lab – had continued to live with his new adoptive family. While a robot could never fully replace the experience of a human parent or teacher in helping children to learn, as supplementary aids to learning (again, at a time when the UK is facing shortages of teaching and support staff) could be invaluable.

I doubt it’ll be anytime soon that I get my own personal BB-8 to bumble cutely behind me and chastise me with a series of irate beeps when I do something daft. So, for now, I’m just looking forward to the day when more basic droids become a common sight in our homes and workplaces, helping us to do the jobs we love to hate, and making our working lives that little bit brighter and easier.

Six Robots & Us is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until late January