“Robots are the new middle class. And everyone else will either be an entrepreneur or a temp staffer.” -James Altucher
In the months from November 2016 to January 2017, the Indian banking system quietly saw the beginning of yet another revolution. It was not as talked about and debated like the demonetisation move by PM Narendra Modi.Rather, it started off with the appearance of two friendly humanoids in the Indian banking scene – Lakshmi and IRA.
So, in November 2016, City Union Bank became the first bank in India to introduce a robot to deal with customer queries. Lakshmi, the robot, based on IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence (AI) engine, is located at a branch in Chennai and could rattle off answers to almost 125 different customer queries.
In January 2017, India’s second largest private sector lender, HDFC Bank followed suit deploying a humanoid called IRA at their Kamla Mills branch in Mumbai. IRA developed using robotics and AI technologies by a Kochi-based startup, Asimov Robotics, is positioned near the welcome desk where it greets customers and guides them to the relevant counter in the branch – such as cash deposit, foreign exchange, loans among others.
Both City Union and HDFC bank plan to deploy at least 20-30 humanoids in their branches, over the next two years. However, their functions won’t be restricted to just greeting customers and answering simple queries going forward.
In the next phase, IRA’s capabilities will be enhanced further by introducing features such as Voice and Facial recognition for customer identification, Voice-guided navigation, Balance enquiry and Cheque deposits among others. In fact, some banks might even have plans to connect their core banking platform (CBS) to the humanoid to enable it to perform actual transactions. The day is not far when IRA and Lakshmi could be counting and disbursing cash from the bank counters.
Inc42 spoke to the founder of Asimov Robotics, Jayakrishnan T, about the development of IRA and how AI can change the very fundamentals of our lives in the coming years.
IRA – Humanoid At The Price Of An Affordable Car
Jayakrishnan has been in robotics for the last 11 years. Starting from developing robotic arms in 2006 for a US company, he founded Asimov Robotics, in 2012, to explore the concept of domestic robots.
“When we were exploring the international market, we could see the trends. They pointed to an increase in demand for service robots. We then started making full-fledged service robots by using indigenous technologies that we could develop at that time,” he reveals. The company started with making robotic arms for IT companies like Accenture, HCL, Samsung, and TCS among others.
In the initial days, Asimov designed a six-feet, 60 kg humanoid service robot prototype which was well-received across the world. It earned them quite a few media accolades, including ‘Top 5 Young Innovators’ award by the British High Commission in 2013, being chosen as ‘One of the 20 Great Ideas of 2013’ by Spiegel Germany and the Red Herring Asia award for two consecutive years – 2013 and 2014.
How they landed HDFC is yet another interesting story. It was in 2016 when they [HDFC] came across the video of the humanoid service robot which sparked their interest in developing a service robot to take care of banking hospitality. That is when they approached Asimov.
“When they looked at the video and exchanged ideas, they were more focussed on the aesthetics than the capabilities. They wanted the robot to look really good. So we focussed on that during the development. It was a prototype but had the look and feel of a full-fledged product,” says Jayakrishnan.
Primarily, the bank wanted to address the hospitality aspect – the robot should be able to identify the people sitting in the hall, greet them, check with them what they are looking for, and guide them to whatever procedure or product they are looking for.
And that’s how IRA came to be – in a time span of just about eight months. While the first version is still a proof of concept and involved a lot of wastage, going forward, the robot will reportedly cost roughly around the price of an affordable good car.
Meanwhile, the next version which will have additional features. Says Jayakrishnan, “ So, the second version will have a lot of NLP (Natural Language Processing) and will be able to verbally communicate. Though IRA also has basic communication abilities, the next version will be more interactive featuring a verbal communication system, and gesture recognition of hands, faces and facial expressions. Also, IRA does not have active fingers but the next version will.”
In fact, he reveals, he expects a higher number of the second version – which just goes to show how kicked the bank is with the enormous possibilities it offers.
But it’s not banks alone. Jayakrishnan discloses that after all the media attention for IRA, queries for service robots have started pouring in from verticals such as healthcare, airports, recreational sector, and retail among others.
While HDFC does not want IRA involved in intricate banking procedures, City Union Bank had expressed that as a possibility on Lakshmi’s launch.
This brings us to the much debated topic on AI – will these robots and humanoids soon take away our jobs?
Humans Need To Come Out Of The Four Folds Of Their Limitations
Before HDFC introduced IRA in January this year, they had seen employee count fall by over 4,500, in the December quarter alone, due to efficiency improvements and attrition. However Nitin Chugh, Country Head, Digital Banking, HDFC Bank, had stated that the bank does not see any job losses because of the humanoid, reiterating that it is aimed only to assist customers.
The same arguments are advanced by Jayakrishnan. He points out that there are lots of pockets where you are not able to get human resources because of demographics and lack of interest. For instance, getting youth workers to work security is a problem. Similarly, there are jobs in retail and elderly care where you see a fall in performance of humans due to the repetitive nature of the job.
“Imagine having a job explaining something continuously throughout the day; you can see a big difference in the quality of performance. Multiply them with days and months and it becomes really boring. Human beings are highly creative and intelligent and they don’t really want to do those jobs,” he opines.
Of course it’s a different story altogether that with countries like India facing a major challenge in the form of unemployment, people have to unwillingly work in these not-so-satisfying blue collar jobs due to lack of education and opportunities-which probably calls for a more judicious use of humanoids.
But Jayakrishnan believes technology will change that as people adapt to dealing with humanoids and robots. He cites instances of times when computers were seen as a threat to jobs. And, yet today, we all have happily adapted to carrying a mini computer in our hand in the form of our smartphones.
“We need technology to solve our problems. We are currently overpopulated vis-a-vis the natural resources at our disposal. When people move to urban areas, infrastructure development happens; biotechnology comes into play to solve our food problems. So, in urban areas, you need a lot of support and there are lot of places where we need technology to scale up, at par with our needs. We needn’t have highly creative humans take care of blue collar jobs; they can do much better. It is the mindset that says ‘I can do this not that.’ We are highly adaptive and right now we are not ready to come out of the four folds of our limitations. We have to change that mindset and not blame technology.”
But will it be a challenge for people to accept humanoids?
He believes hardly any. “Any revolutionary technology has an exponential growth curve. It won’t take even as much time as computers or the Internet. People are already approaching us and understand its implications.”
In addition is the fact that the error rates of robots are much lesser compared to human beings. In the last few years, there have been huge advancements in NLP and gesture recognition and, in the coming years, they will be further fine-tuned.
“Look at Google Speech or Amazon’s Alexa and you realise how fast the technology is catching up,” he surmises.
This is further confirmed by one look at the developed part of the world where humanoids are becoming a part of daily life at an alarming pace.
From Hospitals To Hospitality, Humanoids That Can Do It All
Japan is an extremely robot-friendly nation, where humanoids and robots already have a significant presence, especially in the healthcare industry. As per a report by the Financial Post, nursing homes have been at the epicentre of the robotics boom in Japan, on account of chronic worker shortage in the industry. This is also because the Japanese government began providing subsidies for nursing homes to adopt robotics, beginning in 2013, to help alleviate the shortage. So, unlike the West, where robots are mostly employed in manufacturing plants and research facilities, the Japanese are increasingly seeing robots become a part of their everyday lives.
Take, for instance, the robot PALRO, designed by FUJISOFT, a sleek, white humanoid robot which conducts fitness classes at the Do Life Shinagawa nursing home (Shinagawa City). The robot guides the crowd through a variety of physical and mental exercises. It shakes its arms and instructs everyone to do the same — before launching into a series of quizzes designed to stump the audience. As per FUJISOFT Inc., there are about 400 of these minuscule robots working across the country – in a variety of fields, from physical therapy to being an at-home concierge.
In fact, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry predicts that the nursing care robotics industry could hit $3.8 Bn by 2035, with great potential for exports to neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China – also tackling the issue of rapidly aging populations.
In the UK, something quite similar is being done by Kaspar – a child-sized humanoid that can talk, comb its hair and even play the drums, to change the lives of children suffering from autism. The robot uses realistic but simplified human-like features to help children with autism explore basic human communication and emotions, and learn about socially acceptable physical interaction.
Developed by the University of Hertfordshire, Kaspar has been used in long-term studies with approximately 170 autistic children in Britain and overseas. At present, only three custom-made Kaspar machines exist worldwide, but the team aims to take the successful prototype from the lab and into every school, home, hospital or clinic that needs one.
Similarly, hospitality and retail is another sector where humanoids and service robots are finding acceptance. In July 2015, Japan’s Henn-na hotel became the first hotel in Japan staffed primarily with humanoid. Again, this hotel is part of an influx of socially reactive service robots in the country backed by the government’s support, in order to solve some of the nation’s labor problems.
Last December, in Australia, retail landlord, Stockland, took the plunge with the first test case of human robot interaction at a shopping centre in Sydney with Chip – a 1.7m tall, 100kg social humanoid. Chip will take part in a number of interactions with customers and retailers from food sampling to information on store locations, assisting elderly customers with carrying their groceries to their cars and welcoming customers to the centre.
China too debuted its first realistic humanoid – Jia Jia – last year, which can hold simple conversations and make specific facial expressions when asked, and promises to herald in a future of cyborgs as labourers in China. Developed by a team of engineers at the University of Science and Technology of China, team leader Chen Xiaoping believes that perhaps, within a decade, artificially intelligent (AI) robots like Jia Jia will begin performing a range of tasks in Chinese restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and households.
So, the future looks imminent… Or maybe not.
The AI Takeover Is Bound To Happen – Sooner Rather Than Later
David Hanson, the CEO of robotics firm Hanson Robotics, believes that robots will get smart enough to choose their own life path from becoming a Nobel Prize winner to working in the sex industry. Hanson has been part of a team that invented Sophia, a life-like robot, modelled on Audrey Hepburn, that has 62 facial expressions and can react to the spoken word. He also believes that, one day, robots will be indistinguishable from humans. Robots could walk, play, teach, help and form real relationships with people.
So, while people might debate and rally against the invasion of AI and robotics in our lives and accuse them of taking over our jobs, with new developments and advancements in AI, it’s becoming apparent that someday or the other, the takeover is bound to happen. Just as Japanese society is slowly embracing these humanoids as part of their daily lives to solve their labour problems, it is likely that other nations also will turn to them favourably.
Jayakrishnan believes that there is no other way but adoption, because if we (as a country) slow development in these areas, we will be left behind as today’s world is highly connected. He aptly summarises, “The real question is – do you want to buy it from outside or make it here? It is going to happen nevertheless and no one can stop it.”
So the inevitable will happen – in the future, our coworkers could be machines. They will do those jobs faster and better than us – especially tasks which seems like drudgery. In his book The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, makes a strong argument for letting robots take over. He says,
“We need to let robots take over. Many of the jobs that politicians are fighting to keep away from robots are jobs that no one wakes up in the morning really wanting to do. Robots will do jobs we have been doing, and do them much better than we can. They will do jobs we can’t do at all. They will do jobs we never imagined even needed to be done. And they will help us discover new jobs for ourselves, new tasks that expand who we are.”
This scenario might seem scary but there’s an upside to it as well. By ultimately letting machines take over our mindless/mundane jobs, humans will have more time on their hand to become more human, more creative and, thus, invent the jobs of the future – jobs that actually matter, jobs that will possibly lead to a more meaningful existence for the majority of the masses!