Building a Better Bot

An Interview With Dr. Angelica Lim About the Future of a More Social Robot

I had the opportunity to watch Dr. Angelica Lim speak at the FITC FutureWorld conference in Toronto this past summer. Maybe it was because of her positive enthusiasm about the future of robotics, or maybe it was due to her equally present and balanced concerns about robotics – either way, by hearing her presentation and later having the opportunity to interview her, I came to understand the motivations of a woman whose purpose in life is to help ensure the field of robotics is evolving in a way that helps humanity.

After finishing her PhD specializing in AI and robotics, Dr. Lim went to work for SoftBank Robotics. She is currently building greater intelligence into their NAOqi platform. Her passion revolves around making robots more social; ultimately, she is trying to create technologies that interact with us in a way that is more human. So, as we opened the conference line with visions of Pepper and NAO dancing in my head, here is what I was able to learn about Dr. Lim and her work.

SS: I love asking the big questions first: Where do you see the future of robotics going?

AL: Questions like that are often tricky because I don’t see myself as some sort of prophet who can 
tell the future, since so many technologies and advancements pop up out of nowhere. The AI winter lasted for what, 40, 50 years? And now we’re just starting to see change.

That said, one question mark for me is in terms of humanoid robots. I’ve lived in North America and I’ve lived in Japan, and in Japan, these robots have really taken off. There is a real love for humanoid robots in Japanese culture.
 It will be interesting to see if North America will embrace humanoid robots in the same way.
 If these robots do take off in the North American consumer market, what will they be used for?

One of the things that we’re seeing in Japan is that a huge number – at least 2000 – of our Pepper humanoid robots have been put into schools as educational tools. I think back to when I was growing up and we had Apple computers 
in school to help us learn math and programming. Maybe the next generation will have robots 
in school or discover them at that age, and then this technology will just be normal for them when they grow up. So, my question about the future is this: If right now is the time of “generation tablet,” will the next generation grow up with robots as a norm?

SS: What kinds of opportunities will emerge for businesses as robots become more prolific?

AL: So far there’s been a lot of effort around designing robots that can pick up boxes, do repetitive physical tasks, and ease the burden on people. What we’re looking at next is having robots that are also doing simple repetitive tasks, but on a social level. For instance, a person working at the train station may spend much of their day telling people the location of the nearest bathroom or McDonald’s rather than doing what they were hired to do. So now, we’re looking for simple repetitive interactions that we can offload from our employees and onto a more social robot.

One big advantage that robots bring to these social interactions is that they can speak many languages. In Japan, for example, when foreigners come into a bank, they may struggle to find someone who speaks fluent English. Having a universal, multilingual robot can help with the interaction no matter the language. This is a very customer-centered way of solving the problem.

What this requires in terms of the ecosystem is for more people to become robot app developers or game developers for robots. I originally got into robotics when I was a student in Japan. 
I bought an NAO robot and started building apps for it using Python. There is an ecosystem to 
the robot, but it comes initially as an empty shell, and you need to download apps into it – almost like a robot brain – for it to have these skills.

Last year we talked about a Pepper robot with an Android-based operating system that connects with the Google Play Store. Developers that
 are already making apps for Android can simply make them on Pepper. The Android app then enables all kinds of actions and can help the robot learn to say something, move, ask a question,
 or play a game.

SS: I recall a quote about the true potential of a technology emerging when it is simple enough for anyone to use. How close are we with robotics development?

AL: We have “app jams” all over the world with kids. We participated in Devoxx4Kids events in Europe and the US. We have kids as young as six years old programming robots. They just have to drag and drop boxes in our platform, Choregraphe, and then they suddenly have the robots doing stuff.

When I first worked in Japan, I was working with people on sales teams that didn’t necessarily have a technical background. They were there because they knew what kind of things the robot should say or do, since they were in the stores and saw the challenges or needs firsthand.

Now, we have comedians in Japan programming the robot. And that’s where you get this amazing revolution. As engineers, we can build functional, working stuff, but this is a social robot – how do we make it beautiful, engaging, and surprising? There are specialists in these areas, and they often come from the entertainment industry.

SS: Why have you devoted your life to robotic development?

AL: The reason I’m interested in investing my time in this is because I like to ask myself what technology is going to look like 30 years into the future. How will humans adapt ourselves to technology, and how will technology adapt to us? If you look around now, you see so many people with their heads down in their phones. I question whether that is how we want to be interacting with technology in the future.

I’m hopeful that robots will soon understand our full communication spectrums, because 
we want to have that Star Wars reality where we can just chat with a robot casually. It shouldn’t feel like it does now – “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Alexa” – such a one-way interaction. Don’t get me wrong, that technology is revolutionary, but 
it’s just the first step. I think that when we can converse with robots more naturally, we won’t get so lost in the technology.

Generally, I’m interested in technologies that can help solve problems for humans. I consider the best technological advances to be those that free our time for better things. For example,
 look at the home, with its washing machines, dishwashers, and vacuum cleaners. These technologies have been quite fundamental in empowering women to have time to leave the home and take on a more diverse set of jobs. It’s actually quite amazing that those machines,
 or robots of the time, completely changed society and enabled people to do other things that they felt were worthwhile.

So, I see robotics as today’s technology that can free us for time better spent doing what we want to do. For me, it’s about creating more time to enjoy our lives.

SS: What does the next year hold for you?

AL: Just a couple of months ago, we launched the Pepper Promoter application. Essentially,
 it’s intended to allow businesses to have Pepper promote their products. Let’s say you’re a bank, for example. If you have Pepper at your place of business, the robot is there and 
talking about financial advice or offerings. The Pepper Promoter application is very easy to 
use – you just load some pictures, type in what you want the robot to say, and pretty much anyone can program it to talk about your product.

From there, you can also monitor how people interact with Pepper, observing things like whether they liked the product more than another, their emotional response, and their demographic information – like age, gender, etc. It’s a great insight tool for businesses.

the author

Shane Saunderson

Shane Saunderson is VP, IC/Things at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.

the author

Angelica Lim

Angelica is an Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in Computing Science, AI and Robotics at Simon Fraser University. She is based in Vancouver, Canada.