Nao is 58 cm (23 inches) in height and was Softbank Robotics’ first humanoid robot. The company has been evolving Nao since 2006, and he is currently the fifth version of this robot available, with nearly 10,000 models sold throughout the world.
Among the robot’s achievements are helping students at an Australian university lift the Standard Platform League cup at Robocup 2015. He has also worked as a receptionist, a concierge at a hotel in a variety of languages and participated in a dance show choreographed by Bianca Li.
We spoke with Lasse Portin, a student at Savonia University of Applied Sciences, about his experiences with Nao. We discussed the use of humanoid robots, their capabilities and how they are programmed, as well as their ongoing evolution.
Konnichiwa Nao San
One of the things we wanted to know was how Savonia were using Nao. According to Lasse, the purpose of Nao is primarily to serve as a showcase of robots themselves. He explains, “These robots are, at the moment, used in the Savonia University of Applied Science and we have them here because we want to show how advanced robotics are at the moment — what they can do and what they cannot do. How we have programmed these things is basically — these robots can’t learn anything at the moment; everything we want them to do, we’ve had to program ourselves.”
The robot has the capabilities to make basic conversation with humans, according to Portin. It can also perform several dance moves and even has the ability to let humans exercise along with him. “He has also been in hospitals to interact with small children as well, to play with them,” says Portin.
“These robots can’t learn anything at the moment; everything we want them to do, we’ve had to program ourselves”
At first glance, the main purpose of Nao seems to be entertainment, but Portin tells us that it is used at Savonia for educational purposes and it facilitates learning programming. Students can learn how to program the arms and make them move.
Explaining the working of the robot, Portin says, “It’s basically various sensors. It has a camera, it can hear you, it has several LED lights over its body. It has sensors so it can recognise when you touch it or hold its hand.” Students are then able to ‘catch’ the data it creates and analyse it using dedicated software. Portin’s area of expertise in relation to Nao is programming its moves and conversations.
Can Robots Imitate Humans? Would They Want To?
Even though Nao and his brothers and sisters from Softbank are humanoid in shape, they are a long way from humanity as we understand it. Lasse tells us how difficult it is for them to ‘copy’ humans. “It’s very hard,” he says, “especially when you have to balance it — that's a huge problem. You have to do it very slowly because he’s constantly falling down.”
“I think, ten years from now, we will have a lot more developed robots than these”
He agrees that robots are not particularly advanced at the moment in that they are clumsy, and they often drop things or they fall. In terms of how far we are from the time when robots could become convincingly advanced, Portin says, “No, not hundreds of years. I think, ten years from now, we will have a lot more developed robots than these for example. We are developing artificial intelligence all over the world, so that will be a huge part of these robots.”
Robots Can Teach Themselves, We’re Busy
We asked Portin about Sophia, arguably the world’s most advanced robot, created by Hanson Robotics. Sophia is a Saudi Citizen, the first ever robot to be granted citizenship. Sophia even has her own facebook profile.
“I would like to make them learn new things so that I don't have to teach them everything myself and code everything”
We discussed whether Sophia could genuinely communicate with humans. “I think that they are probably mostly programmed,” Portin says, gesturing towards Nao. What would he most like to develop himself in this field? He thinks it is vital that robots have the ability to self learn.
“I would like to make them learn new things so that I don't have to teach them everything myself and code everything,” he says. “That the main thing I guess — machine learning and artificial intelligence.”
Nao may be Softbank’s most popular robot, but it’s just one of a diverse range of products. Pepper, the company’s push to get itself into the home, is a much larger assistant, standing at over a metre tall. Pepper can move freely and is able to recognise the faces and voices of every member of a family. Its arms even have multiple joints so that it can express itself. It’s a big step towards the home assistants that many imagine when we talk about artificial intelligence. It’s also popular in customer service roles, where novelty meets genuine functionality.
At the other end of the spectrum, Softbank has developed RS26, a commercial floorcare robot that acts similarly to an automated vacuum cleaner. It’s a far less magical product, but shows the company’s desire to fit its robots into a diverse portfolio of settings. It might be some time before Softbank has an assistant in every home, but you may well find its robots in commercial settings in the near future.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]