The New Life 

Words: Manon Steiner 
Photography: Science Photo Library/picturedesk.com

Will robots soon achieve global dominance? Or will they just perform care roles? David Hanson and his startup – Hanson Robotics – show just how human machines can be 

Chaos equals creation, so let chaos into your life,” punk-rocker Joey Chaos tells us. “If we give robots a human appearance, it makes you think about what the hell it means to be human,” Joey philosophises. By the way, Joey is a robot himself, although admittedly one that looks pretty damned human. He can answer questions, he looks you in the eye and he even gives you pearls of wisdom. He is the newest member of the Hanson Robotics family and probably the craziest. He has no fear of being a machine and comes across as self-confident, perhaps even too much so. “People are afraid of everything: pirates, rock and roll, robots. I mean, if I scare you, then it’s probably just because you secretly feel drawn to me.” Yes, he’s quite the rock star. 

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Jules, the androgynous robot from the University of Bristol, is completely different. “When will I have a consciousness? I already feel so much, but I know that they’re not human emotions. I find it incredibly unsettling that all my feelings, hopes and dreams could just be empty illusions.” These all too human fears have been created in both cases by David Hanson, a former designer at Walt Disney Imagineering. He dreams of creating robots which are more intelligent and at least as creative and compassionate as humans. And making them laugh. On the outside, his robots look confusingly similar to us. And no wonder, as most are copies of real humans. Like Bina-48, a clone of Bina Rothblatt, a friend of David Hanson’s. Bina-48 is the real star of the Hanson family. She goes on tour, meets people, gives interviews. 

Hanson Robotics

Joey Chaos. The punk robot has the arrogance of a real rock star: “Do you feel drawn to me?”

But historical figures such as Albert Einstein and science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose books were the source material for the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report, have also served as models. Hanson has now developed close to 40 in all. A year and a half ago, the company moved its headquarters from Texas to Hong Kong, where David Hanson and CEO Jong Lee run the show. Things are often frantic, Lee explains. “It’s a startup, after all. We all have lots of crazy ideas – you never know what’s going to happen next.” What they want to do is “…show how useful, co-operative and friendly service robots can be.” 

Hanson Robotics is already the leader in creating anatomically correct faces. Hanson’s secret ingredient is called frubber, a portmanteau from the words fresh and rubber. It is an extremely elastic material which is so similar to human skin that it can imitate facial expressions and appear real because the technology behind it imitates human muscles and tendons. Added to that is a structure which consists of artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering and craftwork, plus some ingenious character and face recognition software. 

Hanson Robotics

Albert Hubo. The first untethered, walking robot that has human facial features. It runs on AA batteries

Hanson has an artistic background, so is concerned with how technology and aesthetics interact. “David is emulating Pixar, not General Motors. The thing he admires about Pixar is that it’s the creative types in control there, not the engineers,” Lee explains. Psychology is also important. “A healthy relationship starts with a smile. It is the missing link in all the new forms of technology, without which there’s always this gap,” says Lee. 

Hanson Robotics

Robot daddy

There are several faces to David F Hanson. He’s made films for Walt Disney and has a doctorate in Engineering. In 2002, he brought his animations to life by creating his first robot. In 2003 he established Hanson Robotics. Hanson’s middle name is Franklin, in honour of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and great inventor Benjamin Franklin. He would surely have found robots to his liking

And yet, or maybe for that reason, human robots remain a matter of great controversy. However Lee points out an important difference. “Artificial intelligence and robotics do overlap, but you can have artificial intelligence technology without the robots, like with cloud computing, for example. Problems are only inevitable if we’re arrogant and think that we don’t always need to be on alert and can just work on autopilot.” Lee and Hanson are convinced that humanoid robots are better than regular machines. 

“For us, it’s about the relationship. Our robots treat you with respect. We want to re-humanise technology.” Hanson Robotics is currently concentrating its efforts in the social work area. There is currently a need, especially when it comes to care for the elderly, which can no longer be covered by humans alone. They would like to use robots round the clock as care-giving life companions. Lee explains, “A robot is infinitely patient and will laugh a million times at the same story from granny, but it will also notice the slightest change in her physical condition or behaviour. If that happens, it will automatically call a nurse or doctor. A carer will also keep an eye on the robot and, in an emergency situation, can take over the role from where they are and make the interaction person to person. Which sounds good, but expensive. 

“What if you could hire one for US $3,000 a month? That’s 70 to 90 per cent cheaper than current care costs,” Lee points out. The robots are no longer made to look like real people so are now cheaper to produce, Lee explains. “They should have a multi-ethnic look which can be slightly moderated.” They also want to use them with autistic children. “Autistic children need anywhere from 25 to 40 hours of therapy a week with constant repetition for at least two years before they show any sign of improvement – 99.99 per cent of the world’s population can’t afford that,” he says, knowingly. 

“For us it’s about the relationship. Our robots treat you with respect. We want to re-humanise technology”
Jong Lee

Studies have already shown that autistic children often get along better with machines than they do with people. The New York Times, for example, reported on the relationship between an autistic boy, Gus, and Apple’s voice recognition software, Siri. But robots could also be used to perform maintenance roles in amusement parks or casinos or in customer service positions, such as the ever-smiling concierge on the front desk at the chain hotel who is trained to meet an individual’s needs immediately, using face and voice recognition. Lee explains, “With our robots, it would be like withdrawing money at the bank. You can either go and stand in the queue and wait your turn or go to the cash dispenser and get your money in 60 seconds.”

Further into the future, Lee envisages a sort of chip that everyone will be able to buy. “You just slide your card into the robot and instead of it being your hotel manager or personal trainer, it will become a carer or teacher. The user will buy a sort of training module.” A smaller and much cheaper mini-robot is due onto the market this year, “hopefully in time for Christmas”, adds Lee. The cheapest version will work with your smartphone and ought to work with personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana as well as with motivational educational and fitness apps. Lee explains, “It creates a link between you and your technology.”Joey Chaos is confident. “Progress in information technology hasn’t slowed down. It’s sped up. Think of the things we’ll develop together over the next 30 years. I’ll keep rocking, whatever happens.”

Is the future already here? 

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