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AI and the Application of Robotics: Have We Really Come That Far?

December 17, 2019 • Devin Partida


Cutting-edge robotics companies love to describe their newest robots with impressive language. In their advertising, these companies go to great lengths to demonstrate how these new robots aren’t just a new approach to the industrial application of robotics. Instead, they want us to think every new prototype can represent a massive step forward — the future of AI.

The developers of one humanoid robot named Sophia have
described it as the world’s first “robot citizen” — an incredibly
advanced robot that uses AI to listen, understand and respond to human speech.

However, not all robot experts are so convinced. Some
think that, while Sophia is an intriguing achievement, it doesn’t represent the
entire future of robotics.

So, how far have we come with AI and the application of robotics? Are new robots like Sophia worth getting excited about?

Robotics Experts and Sophia the Robot

Some people have touted Sophia as a first step in creating an intelligent
robot — a rudimentary version of the robots we see in sci-fi films that
understand human speech and make decisions for themselves.

Many robotics experts, however, believe Sophia has more in
common with lifelike automatons — mechanical devices designed to mimic human
movements and speech. 

Facebook’s head of AI called the bot a
“puppet.” Robotics writer and computer scientist Noel Sharkey compared Sophia to Elektro, a 1930s robot that
could smoke cigarettes, walk when asked and speak more than 700 words. Elektro
responded to voice commands, but no one would say the robot understood what
people asked it to do.

As impressive as Sophia’s communication skills may be,
there’s no real evidence to suggest it isn’t just a highly advanced animatronic
cycling through a handful of preset phrases and gestures based on detected
voice commands. 

David Hanson, Sophia’s creator, is a former Disney
Imagineer with no real background in AI. Some newspapers have also noted a
connection between Hanson’s Ph.D. thesis — about designing a robot that looks
and seems human — and Sophia. 

Hanson himself has even cautioned that AI is in its
“infancy.” Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson’s company, said
the technology behind Sophia is more like a “software platform” than
a human-like artificial intelligence.

What AI and robotics Will
Look Like Soon

Sophia is effective at capturing the public’s imagination,
but also frustrating for AI and robotics experts who find PR hype can sometimes
interfere with their ability to communicate less flashy advancements. Robots
like Sophia, if not correctly described, can confuse people and lead them to
believe that AI is much more advanced than it is right now.

While human-like AI is almost certainly a way off, there
are still significant developments happening in AI right now. These
breakthroughs will probably give people outside the industry a better sense of
where AI and robotics are heading soon.

Collaborative robots, which use AI image recognition and
navigation software, are becoming common sights on factory floors.
There, these robots are working alongside human workers, scanning finished
goods as they roll along a conveyor belt or picking up faraway goods in a large
warehouse. Currently, these cobots are some of the most popular new kinds of
robots because of their adaptability. 

Complex networks of data-collection devices will continue
to become increasingly integral and enable new, data-driven management styles —
like smart grids, smart factories and smart cities. The people who run these
grids, cities and factories will use huge data pools to optimize everything from electricity production
to traffic signal timing.

Robotics experts haven’t entirely written off Sophia, either — even if they think the robot is a puppet, it’s a highly advanced one. The actual value of Sophia may lie more in demonstrating innovation in a few different areas — like speech synthesis and material design — that have posed significant challenges for designers in the past rather than the application of robotics in more intelligent ways.

Looking Toward the Future of Robotics Applications

While the AI and robotics industries have made several
impressive leaps in the past few years, not every new prototype is a
breakthrough. Sophia the robot, while interesting, probably doesn’t represent
the next step forward for robotics or AI.  

Instead, other developments — like cobots and data-driven
smart factories — are more likely to drive forward new developments in AI. In
the years to come, it is more likely people will use AI for its ability to
analyze complex data quickly, rather than to recreate the way humans think.