"Most people think that Japan is more advanced in terms of robotics, but during the past two and half years, we've had at least 10,000 people come into contact with our humanoid robots," Fabrice Goffin, co-CEO of Zora Robotics in Ostend, Belgium, told me over the phone.
Goffin set up Zora Robotics six years ago with Deblieck while they were in Qatar as consultants for the hospitality sector. The pair designed a software that can be installed on humanoid robotics company Aldebaran's Nao robot, widening its functions beyond the academic sphere to the service sector as well.
Nao bots equipped with Zora Robotics software are, for instance, being used in hospitals and elderly homes to help motivate children with burns and old people to exercise, and in hotels where the robots greet people. This week, Zora Robotics is announcing its plan to roll its software out onto Softbank's Pepper robot and to release it into Belgium hospitals this year. They launched their first Pepper robot at Citadelle Liege Hospital in Belgium Monday.
"Our software is compareable with Windows for computers. We have a sort of Windows for robots, which allows people to program the robot," explained Goffin. "We are creating an interaction between people and robots, but not with artificial intelligence. We are working with databases."
Goffin and Deblieck have made a database composed from over 1,000 questions and 1,000 answers. When the robot is asked a question by a human, the database onboard the robot allows it to match the right answer to the question. For instance, the Pepper robots used in hospitals will be able to respond to greetings as well as tell the time, and give directions. More questions and answers can be added to the script over time.
The idea is that the robot learns from the human it interacts with, and not by itself. Goffin compared the process to Google translate, in which people can add translations to the platform so that its translation capabilities improve over time.
"The difference between robots and humans is that they will never forget"
In recent years, the rise of the robots has caused concern among the general populace with some fearing dystopian scenarios where automatons either enslave us or take over our jobs. For Goffin, the future harbours a more nuanced outcome. He said in industry, production robots had been slowly taking over human jobs for the past 30 to 40 years, and in work settings, they would be taking over repetitive tasks. He gave the example of the questionnaires that are given by hotel receptions to guest as the end of their trip.
"We thought that a robot can take that information and store it into his core storage and be able to use it next time that customer comes back. The difference between robots and humans is that they will never forget," said Goffin, suggesting that human clerks might give the same questionnaire twice to a returning guest.
Goffin said the increase in aging populations across the world, and the lack of people to care for them, would encourage greater demand for personal assistant-like service robots.
In Belgium, the Wi-Fi-connected Nao robots with Zora Robotics software used in nursing homes receive RSS feeds, enabling them to read newspaper articles to the elderly. They also respond to questions on the weather and on the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus for that day.
"When we go to an elderly home, there are about two carers for every 50 old people," said Goffin. "Unfortunately, the people working there don't have the time to respond to everyone with the same kindness, even if they wish to. That's where the robot steps in as an assistant that takes over the repetitive tasks."