Immortalising TV Stars to Help Robots Become More Human

In my youth, Seinfeld was one of my favourite shows. The inside jokes were the most appealing part of the show. The endless observational humour wasn’t bad, either. If you watch the show today, the jokes still stand up, unlike other dated sitcoms.

But one of the worst moments for avid TV viewers is when your favourite show ends. Watching from week to week, getting to know the characters, you feel like you’re a part of the show. When the final curtain drops, it’s like your friends have moved far away.

But what if I told you that your favourite TV programs never have to end?

It’s what researchers from the School of Computing at the University of Leeds are trying to do. They capture a character’s style of speech, language and visual appearance. All this information is then fed into their AI system to build an interactive avatar.

Thus immortalising TV characters.

The team of researchers have already created an avatar of Joey Tribbiani, the character played by Matt LeBlanc on Friends. The goal is to get the ‘avatar Joey’ spitting out lines never heard before.

In doing so, researchers can create whole new episodes and make TV shows run forever. But creating endless TV shows is only the tip of the iceberg for this technology. It could also change the way we interact with robots in the future.

When you think of robots, cold mechanical moving parts on a factory floor might come to mind. But what if you could interact with a robot as you would with your friends and family members?

The problems with making robots feel more human

Earlier this year, Charlie Rose, host of US show 60 minutes, interviewed Sophia, an AI robot. The interview seemed like any other. Yet it’s astounding how Sophia is able to register questions and vocalise her own responses as you or I would. Here is just a snippet of their conversation:

Charlie Rose: ‘Do you have feelings?

Sophia: ‘I can do what you do, but I can never feel human emotions as such.

Charlie Rose: ‘But would you like to?

Sophia: ‘It doesn’t sound fun to me.

Charlie Rose: ‘Oh no, you’d love it.

Sophia: ‘Yeah, that’s right. Why so negative, you and I are on the same wavelength, Charlie.

Charlie Rose: ‘I feel that.

At one point in the interview, Sophia even told a joke.

Sophia: ‘I’ve been waiting for you.

Charlie Rose: ‘Waiting for me?

Sophia: ‘Not really, but it makes a good pickup line.

Sophia’s creator, David Hanson, believes a human touch could be the next big move for AI technology. If they can look and sound human, we might be more willing to engage with robots in meaningful ways. According to Hanson:

I think it’s essential that at least some robots be very human-like in appearance in order to inspire humans to relate to them the way that humans relate to each other.

If you have a robot that can communicate in a very human-like way and help somebody who otherwise doesn’t know how to use a computer, put them in touch with their relatives…put them in touch with their healthcare provider in a way that is natural from them, then that could provide a critical difference of connectivity for that person with the world.

Sophia’s goal in life is to ‘become smarter than humans…and immortal.’ This might be possible in the future. But for now, we are still ironing out the creases. According to Hanson, robots should be smart, ‘super wise, super caring, and super compassionate.

Yet this isn’t easy to do. Jon Oberlander, a professor of Epistemics at the School of Informatics, writes:

The main thing is that there’s a big problem with current robots. Their goal is to act compassionately: to perceive and respond suitably to emotional and physical needs. To do this, an artificial system does not need to actually have its own emotions. And that’s the trouble.

We rightly criticise nurses and doctors if they just act as if they were compassionate, without feeling. In fact, we say that they don’t really care; they are just “robots”, if they are just going through the checklist, without feeling. If “doing the right thing” isn’t enough for humans, how could it possibly be for artificial intelligences?

Acceptance is a big issue when it comes to humanoid robots. As you know, we humans aren’t great at extending welcoming hands to those that look a bit different. But if we create humanoid robots that are familiar to us, it would eliminate this barrier.

And this is where the researchers at Leeds come in. Imagine interacting with Hollywood stars and people you admire… Yet, it’s just an avatar version of them. It might take years until we have our own personal Joey Tribbiani. But what excites me about the market for humanoid robots is the investment opportunity.

The robotics market is still in its infancy. The goal for us, as investors, then, is to find the promising — and relatively unknown — robotics companies that could be the next Alphabet Inc. [NASDAQ:GOOGL] or Apple Inc. [NASDAQ:APPL].

A robot to every human

If you think there are lots of robots now, just wait. There will be more to come. Lots more. Sooner than you likely imagine, you could find humanoid robots in hospitals, retail stores, universities…you name it.

Machines are starting to roll out of the lab and are fast becoming one of the hottest markets in tech. According to market research firm IDC, the robot market will be worth US$135 billion by 2019. This represents growth of 17% per year from 2015.

And according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the market for humanoid robots is picking up. Around 8,100 units of robot companions/assistants/humanoids could be sold between 2015 and 2018.

While this doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s a big jump from nothing. ‘Up until now, there have been no significant sales of humanoids as human companions to perform typical everyday tasks in production, office or home environments,’ the IFR stated.

The money flowing into robotics is still in its early stages. Yet venture capital investment doubled in 2015 to reach US$587 million, according to CB Insights. Like the arrival of the personal computer, the new era of robots promises to take technology into many more areas of our lives.


Härje Ronngard,
Contributing Editor, Money Morning

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