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Will Robots Become Part of the Family?
- Oct 2014 -

The title of this article (and subsequent workshop that Zinc is running in December) could be perceived as a little provocative. I’m sure there will be some people practically screaming at their screens "No, they can’t become part of the family!!". Apologies to anyone whose feathers might be ruffled! 

The truth is that we ask this question with sincerity. Many of you may have heard of a record breaking Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that took place in the last few months. 

It was for “the world’s first family robot” called Jibo. It was trying to raise $100K and it actually raised nearly $2.3m. It was an astonishing success, and having just looked at their website, they are not even taking any more orders because they have got to focus on getting the preorders made and delivered. 

Jibo has been designed to be a simple companion in the home that can talk to you and do genuinely useful things whilst also having personality. A lot of thought has gone into the creation of Jibo and they’ve clearly pulled it off in terms of designing something that resonates with people. This is a fascinating area to think about and explore. 

Apart from Jibo, there are many other robots coming on to the market with increasing emphasis on everyday people (‘consumers’ but we don’t like that word at Zinc). 

We’ve been working on a robot toy design project this year and through that exploratory process, we realized just how many robot toys are now entering the competitive landscape.

In the next few years, robot toys will be everywhere. However, it’s worth noting that some of these “toys” are not just fun to play with but have other specific functionality. Some are designed to help with education and others are being designed with health related objectives. 

Right here in Barcelona, we have started an informal collaboration with the robotics group from La Salle –Ramon Llul University (we have just taken on an intern from their group) and we may try to formalize the collaboration as we progress. La Salle is a giant network of universities all around the world but here in Barcelona, they have been really focusing on the therapeutic qualities of robotics with particular focus on children with autism. 

Jordi Albo (Associate Professor and Robotics Director) and his team have been collaborating with the Sant Joan de Déu Hospital and have already proven that robots can have a therapeutic impact on children with autism, reducing anxiety and stress, and improving learning skills. Meanwhile robots are being increasingly used for helping with elderly care both in very functional terms and also for therapeutic purposes too. 

Paro, the seal is another example of a robot having success in this field. So robots are gradually infiltrating everyday life, they are no longer the imagination of sci-fi enthusiasts. We are at the very early stages of robot development for everyday people but already they are proving to be useful. 

To become part of the family though, we think the one test they have to pass is whether we can actually have emotional attachments to them. Pets clearly become part of the family and that’s because we really do develop feelings for them. So, as we are finalising our plans to run a big workshop here in Barcelona on this very subject, it was uncanny timing to come across this article in The Telegraph (Can you have feelings for a robot?).

Peter McOwan , Professor of Computer Science at Queen Mary University in London, says that love is a “physiological state” and it has already been proven on a physiological level that humans can become emotional about technology, perhaps even developing “love” at a basic level. Just thinking about how we relate to technology generally, we are all becoming dependent and even emotional about our phones, and we’ve barely even started to use and appreciate “personal assistants” like Siri yet.

This year, we had the release of the film ‘Her’ about a person falling in love with an intelligent computer operating system personalized through a female voice. Although this is still in the realms of fiction, it does a great job at exploring this interesting dynamic. It’s fiction but is it a sign of things to come? At Zinc, we are really focused on how robots can help and complement the human condition. Whether, they will ever be seen in the same light as a fellow human or a pet, we’re not sure, but we believe it is worth exploring, which is why we will be running a workshop in early December so we can get many perspectives on this matter. 

We will be collaborating with people from the robotics industry and academia, but if anyone is interested in participating in the workshop, there may be some places available. Please do get in touch and explain your interest.

Zinc appoints Digital Experience Lead!