How androids will become part of our lives

Image: Albert Hubo and David Hanson
Roboticist David Hanson faces the camera with a robot named Albert Hubo, which was developed with the assistance of South Korean scientists. Hanson is the one on the right. (Credit: Hanson Robotics)

Artificial intelligence and robots are hot topics right now, but will we ever get to the stage we saw 50 years ago on “The Jetsons,” where your typical household could have a robotic maid named Rosie?

Robotics pioneer David Hanson says yes, and he thinks it’ll take less than 50 more years. That’s the prediction he delivered on Wednesday during a Skype-enabled panel presentation on the future of AI and robotics in Seattle, sponsored by the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest.

A veteran of Disney’s imagineering operation, Hanson has produced custom-made robot heads that are capable of eerily humanlike expressions. Now Hanson has relocated to Hong Kong, where he’s gearing up to unveil a line of production-model robots that take advantage of recent AI advances as well as the toymaking prowess of the Pearl River Delta.

He’s not yet ready to say how much those robots will cost. That will come later this year. But he foresees a day when humanoid robots will cost as much as cars.

“It is possible that we can get the cost down to tens of thousands of dollars for walking, humanoid robots that can grasp and manipulate,” he said from Hong Kong. “They can perform as well as the robots like the KAIST DARPA Robotics Challenge grand prize winner.”

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Roboticists try putting a human face on AI

Image: Sophia and Ava
Hanson Robotics’ Sophia (left) represents the state of the art in “friendly” AI robots, while the AI robot Ava from “Ex Machina” (played by Alicia Vikander, at right) represents a sci-fi vision of where the robotics field could go. (Credit: CNBC / Hanson Robotics / A24 Films)

Can artificially intelligent robots be our friends? Our helpmates? Our companions? Roboticists and AI researchers are trying to make it so – and the first fruits of their labors are about to come onto the market. But there are already hints that the efforts will touch some of humanity’s hot buttons.

Take Hanson Robotics, for example: Its latest creation, Sophia, combines an AI chatbot with an expressive humanlike face. She can talk enthusiastically about helping humans in health care, education and customer service. But she can also go off script.

“Do you want to destroy humans? Please say no,” roboticist David Hanson, the company’s founder, asked Sophia during a CNBC interview at this month’s South By Southwest technology conference in Texas.

“OK, I will destroy humans,” it replied. “No, I take it back!” Hanson said with a laugh.

Closer to home, a Microsoft teen chatbot named Tay was hijacked by mischievous Twitter users and transformed into a foul-mouthed racist, less than 24 hours after it was released onto the Internet. Microsoft had to take Tay offline, delete the offending Tweets and try resetting its AI attitude.

Such problems shouldn’t be surprising to science fiction fans, who have been pummeled by robo-dystopias ranging from the classic 1927 film “Metropolis” to last year’s “Ex Machina.” But despite the challenges, scores of companies around the world are working on robots that are meant to have the smarts and the actuators necessary to interact with humans in everyday environments.

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