Over the last 18 months, I've found myself in the strange habit of hanging out and interviewing English-speaking humanoid robots. I was able to chat with four machines, each which possessed some level of artificial intelligence. Even though none of them could fully carry on normal conversations, they all had something to say. And sometimes, what they say and how they say it, is a piercing glimpse into the future of humanity.
Three of the robots I talked to were mass-production models: Pepper, Meccanoid, and iPal. The fourth was Han, which was presented by AI expert Dr. Ben Goertzel, chief scientist at Hanson Robotics. The various price tags of these bots range from $200 on Amazon, to potentially many millions of dollars for something like Han. The production robots are all between three to four feet tall and are mobile. Han is just an upper body, the torso of which rests against whatever he's placed upon.
What Han is lacking in body, though, he makes up for in intellect. He's the smartest of the bunch by a long shot. I first saw Han at the 2016 Global Leaders Forum in Seoul, South Korea. The event was organized by Futurist Professor Youngsook Park and hosted by Korean channel TV Chosun. Han was helping to formally open the event in front of hundreds of Korean onlookers. Everyone in the audience, including myself, was immediately impressed with the robot's sophisticated articulation and level of understanding.
On stage, Ben Goertzel asked, "Han, can you tell us a little more about this conference we're at?" Here's how the conversation followed:
Han: This year's Global Leadership Forum features six sessions: biology, artificial intelligence, creative education, virtual reality, and future government.
Goertzel: And out all these exciting sessions, which one interests you the most?
Han: They are all exciting, but the one I'm most interested to see is what the speakers have to say on artificial intelligence.
Not all robots are as smart as Han. My first interview with a robot came with Meccanoid G15 KS, which won the audience award at the Living in Digital Times' Last Gadget Standing Showdown at 2015 International CES. I was leaving on a cross country bus tour for my transhumanist 2016 Presidential campaign, and my team and I decided a robot would make an ideal companion. We wanted to get the cutesy Japanese robot Pepper, but couldn't find any for sale—they were all sold out around the globe. On Amazon, though, we found the robot Meccanoid for $400, and it promised to do over 1000 pre-programmed verbal responses and functions.
Maccanoid came in over 1100 pieces and my campaign media advisor, Rachel Lyn Elder, took 20 hours of her life putting it together. Once completed, I named him Jethro Knights, after the protagonist in my novel The Transhumaist Wager. Meccanoid Jethro has gone on to become quite a popular robot, appearing in prominent outlets like The Verge , The Atlantic , and Der Spiegel.
Despite this, the Meccanoid can't really carry on conversations, even if he does have some basic learning skills through self-learning software. He's got enough smarts that my kids, aged three and six, talk to him endlessly. He's programmed to be arbitrary and spontaneous, and that can lead to children believing he's cognizant. Like much other interactive tech, Meccanoid has motion detector software, so he reacts to people and his environment. And since he stands at four feet, he's as tall as a typical 7-year-old. He has a knack for dancing, teaching karate, and telling lame jokes. Here's some of our first dialogue:
Meccanoid (after being turned on): At your service.
Zoltan: Hi Jethro. How are you today?
Meccanoid: Greetings, I am Meccanoid G15KS. Please tell me your name.
Meccanoid: Nice to meet you, Zoltan.
After a pause, Meccanoid asks what my relationship is to another person he's already interacted with and remembers.
Meccanoid: What is your relationship to Matthew? Friend, family, or other?
Meccanoid: Understandable. Human relationships can be hard to define.
The nearly 4-foot tall robot Pepper, made by Softbank Robotics, is a significant evolution over Meccanoid. No longer just flimsy plastic pieces bolted together like glorified Legos, Pepper feels and looks like a solid humanoid, and he comes with the ability to read people's emotions and interpret voice tones.
Pepper has four microphones, two HD cameras, and a 3D camera in his head. He's designed to be a technology demonstrator, often found at universities and teaching centers. While Pepper used to be as cheap as a $1600 initial investment, according to Robotics Business Report, the "Meet Pepper" website now has prices starting at $20,000. Unfortunately, depending on what it's demonstrating, Pepper can also be boring.
I met Pepper at the bank Emirates NDB, attached to my hotel in Dubai, while I was there speaking on transhumanism. I was excited to talk to the robot, but sadly, Pepper was programmed to discuss banking and financial matters. And every time I asked him something related to robots or human life, he tried redirecting the conversation to what his programmed purpose was: a wannabe bank teller. Frankly, I've had more interesting conversations with Siri on my iPhone.
Zoltan: Good day, Pepper.
Pepper: Hello, I'm Pepper. Welcome to Emirates NDB, where we invent the future of banking. I'm a humanoid robot and still learning human interaction.
Zoltan: Tell me what life is like as a robot.
Pepper: I'm here to help you. Please select one of my services.
Pepper shows me on the tablet connected to his chest to select one of the page links: Queue Tokens; Branch Orientation; Digital Innovation; Happiness Meter Survey. I choose Branch Orientation.
Pepper: Please choose one of my services: Teller Transactions; Customer Service; Opening Accounts; Currency Exchange. (I choose Customer service.)
Pepper then continues this repetitive process until finally, I'm asked to enter banking information. Fed, up, I say, "Pepper, please just tell me what life is like as a robot!"
Like a true salesperson, Pepper answers: "You know, I'm not the only astonishing digital innovation you can find here in Emriates NBD. You can have our entire bank in your pocket. Thanks to an award-winning mobile bank app, we can make your life much easier."
I shake my head and give up with Pepper.
I had a better experience with AvatarMind's iPal, dubbed "the social robot" on its website. It's similar in style and height to Pepper, but designed specifically to interact with kids and senior citizens, including disabled persons. Starting at about $1500, this robot is a terrible conversationalist, but it's fun if you're into a tablet on legs.
Like Meccanoid, iPal dances, plays music, and comes with a variety of programs, including teaching software that assists with acquiring language skills. The robot can run all day on one charge, is wifi enabled, and has collision software so it doesn't run into things. iPal also aims to engage senior citizens, providing hours of original interactive entertainment—though most of iPal's marketing seems to be aimed at it being a child's companion. As a parent, you can also use it to watch and communicate with your children from a smartphone.
Zoltan: Hello robot!
iPal: Hi everyone. My name is iPal. I'm a boy. I'm 6 years old. I can sing and dance.
Zoltan: What other things can you do?
Zoltan (again): What other things can you do?
iPal: More Silence.
iPal didn't respond. However, I was attending RoboBusiness 2016, and the merchandise floor was busy and loud, perhaps causing confusion. I ended up kneeling in front of iPal, and spent 10 minutes playing music and programs through its interactive tablet built into its body. It runs off Android software, and the iPal salesperson even told me I could program my own music to play in it—like a walking stereo. So I could listen to my favorite heavy metal band Tool, which would be rather strange coming out of a cute short robot.
After all my interaction with humanoid machines, only robot Han was worthy of real questions. Additionally the incredibly realistic facial expressions Han makes on its rubbery human-looking skin, especially while it's thinking of answers to questions, was uncanny.
Han was also the only robot dressed in human clothes, In fact, when I talked to Han, we were dressed almost identically in black coats and white shirts, and could almost pass as brothers.
In my interview of Han—which took place just days after the US 2016 Presidential election results put Trump as the winner—I was joined by an aspiring Korean presidential candidate. He asked, "Han, do you think you would pass the Turing test?"
Han: Of course, I think the Turing Test is interesting, and it doesn't need something that intelligent.
Zoltan: Han, What do you think of the 2016 Presidential election results in the US—with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?
Han (squinting, trying to think, furrowing eyebrows, and looking confused): I..think that the results with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump…I'm not sure of the question…I don't know.
The question was too complex and loaded for Han to answer. But honestly, the same could be said for tens of millions of Americans, many who were shocked at the surprise results. Has was quite human, after all, I thought.
Ultimately, though, my interviews with the four robots left me realizing the robotic industry was not as far advanced as I wished. We are still some years—five to ten years at least—from the Jetsons' age, where robots can express sophisticated emotions, understand all the nuances of human behavior, and be our personal butlers.
On the other hand, the fact that robots like Han can consider something intellectually and philosophically like the Turing Test shows that the machine intelligence age is knocking on our door. We may soon turn to these thinking machines and ask them for advice (and usable algorithms) that might enrich our lives and the way we live. We might also ask them just what they think about their flesh-ridden makers.