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Citizen Robot: how combined forces will make human-machine interaction a trivial thing

Sophia has become the first robot to be granted a citizenship. What makes her special though is not her appeal, but her advanced ability to communicate. Nama’s founder and CEO Rodrigo Scotti shares the company’s view on how to build an ideal future for man-machine interaction.

Last October was an important month in the history of robotics, as Saudi Arabia granted the first citizenship to a robot. Created with the looks of the actress Audrey Hepburn, the gynoid Sophia was designed by Hanson Robotics, a company founded by the American roboticist David Franklin Hanson.

Sophia has gained the attention of the crowds not only for her realistic appeal, but also because she has one of the most advanced conversational skills for a physical robot. That made her extend her popularity on the internet to become a “media darling,” as Hanson Robotics describes, since she has already been interviewed numerous times, including during a participation in The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In 2016, Sophia also surprised the Brazilian audience by becoming the cover girl of December’s edition of Elle Magazine, which also featured a full fashion editorial with the gynoid and special extra content accessed via augmented reality.

But gynoids or female realistic robots have been around since 2003, when the first model, EveR-1, was created by South Korean scientists, and so we were also presented to other examples such as Actroid and Aiko or even the recent attempts of RealDoll to add artificial intelligence to their sex dolls. However, what makes Sophia so unique is her advanced ability to communicate.

Nama’s team at Google Campus, in São Paulo.

Nama’s mission is precisely to provide a natural connection between people and AI by transforming complex interactions into simple conversations through an efficient and personalized service. In other words, Nama combines machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and bots as a means to automate conversations that are also able to connect with people emotionally.

“Chatbots, virtual assistants or intelligent agents, you name it, are becoming more and more part of our daily lives,” states Rodrigo Scotti, founder and CEO at Nama. “Siri, Google Assistant or even enterprise chatbots are potential omnipresent intelligent entities that can understand and help you whenever you need. With more advancements on NLP, machine learning and also with less siloed databases and services from enterprises, we could face an exciting future with these intelligent artificial entities that we will be willing to have an immaterial relationship with.”

Although Nama’s main field of exploration is language, they still see physical machines such as robots as an important part of the process. “Robotics will be essential to extend the abilities of the AI, allowing it to interact freely with the physical world,” says Scotti, who believes that AI embodiment will allow more empathy from humans. “Humanoid robotics with natural language processing and generation will enable a more natural interaction between consumers and machines.”

In this sense, building a future in which man-machine interaction happens with fluidity and empathy is a sum of efforts from different works on different science fields, being robotics and AI just a part of the whole. “Physical robots is a pretty cool thing, and we’ll be glad to contribute to its mind and language interface when the time comes,” says Scotti.

While we are still paving the way for the perfect scenario, there are some challenges to be faced by developers and roboticists: the so-talked uncanny valley. The concept arises when a synthetic being (physical or an image) is so close to resembling a human in its appearance and behavior that it also creates a mix of confusion and fear since we know it’s not human, but we still might register it as one, thus causing an inner conflict that leads us to unease.

According to Scotti, such reaction is more probable to happen when there is a physical or visual interaction with the robot, whereas during a conversation with a chatbot, humans and robots are sharing the same message interface to express themselves. “The user is viewing the message the same way it will be viewing it during a chat with another human, for instance,” he explains. “Maybe the computer couldn’t understand the user or even generate gibberish as a response, but I’m uncertain that it would cause the same repugnance as seeing, touching and feeling an almost-but-not-exactly real human being.”

The movie Ex Machina (2014) poses questions about the uncanny valley while also presenting a gynoid protagonist that resembles the design of Hanson’s Sophia.

Therefore, chatbots are probably the best option when attempting to establish friendly relationships between robots and humans, since both sides are “reduced” to the same interface, which is language. While robotics are still trying to find a middle term between the too realistic and the playful designs, such as AIST’s PARO, which is designed to look like a seal, interacting with machines by the means of language is a first step to make such connection between two worlds more natural and common.

With the creation of Poupinha, a scheduling chatbot designed for São Paulo state government, Nama has already experienced positive reaction coming from the over 8,000 people that interact with the bot every day. With more than 1mi appointments schedule, the chatbot received more than 30% thanking messages from the users, including people who expressed their gratitude with messages such as “God bless you.”

In other words, it is thus possible to visualize a future in which man-machine interactions won’t be a controversial topic anymore, but an everyday event as these chatbots (and even physical robots) are designed and programmed to take part of our daily life in equity, being it as conversational interfaces or recognized as citizens, just like Sophia.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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