Following the success of the first wave of virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, developers around the world are busy creating next-generation devices in an effort to grab a slice of the burgeoning market. But integrating them into social robots has not been as successful, as seen by the high-profile failures of Jibo and Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri robot.
A key recent trend has been a focus on “improving context”, enabling devices to become more conversational, said Blake Kozak, principal analyst, smart home and security technology, IHS Markit. Kozak said he believes Google is leading this space with announcements such as duplex and multitasking.
“Duplex is a big step in making virtual assistants true ‘assistants’ by completing tasks autonomously, such as scheduling appointments,” said Kozak. “For multitasking, this means being able to combine several requests into one question. In the past, all queries would have to be made separately, and each time using the wake word for the voice assistant. For Amazon, Alexa can now remember questions it cannot answer and provide a notification when the answer is available.”
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Companies are also pushing for improved sound quality and displays. Companies such as Bose, Bang & Olufsen, and Harman Kardon are all producing smart speakers that include embedded voice assistants.
Amazon also recently announced several new Alexa products, including an updated third-generation Echo Dot that Amazon says is 70% louder than its predecessor. Amazon also announced the Echo Sub, Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp.
Amazon’s recent announcement of Alexa Guard is another example of how smart speakers are rolling out additional features for home users. If the smart speaker hears glass breaking, or a smoke or carbon monoxide detector triggers, owners can receive alerts.
“[This] could be used to drastically reduce false alarms from professional security monitoring, and also provide benefits to insurance companies,” said Kozak. “The implications of this could also be big for companies such as Nest that offer smoke detectors for nearly $200 each, since each Echo could provide an alert from non-connected detectors.”
Additional use cases driven by smart speakers and virtual assistants include energy consumption, with devices that can integrate into a solar panel platform, or battery storage, like those produced by Tesla.
Appliances can be more closely linked to energy companies, and only turn on “based on a specified tariff rate or during non-peak times,” said Kozak.
“For water consumption, voice is already being used to control the temperature of water and faucet or shower control,” he said. “This could have a big impact on water usage and waste. Although there are already smart meters being deployed, especially in countries such as the U.K., smart speakers and appliances will help grow the use of AI in the home,” said Kozak.
Social robots set for growth among aging population
The big question is whether virtual assistants and new voice-recognition developments will translate into the social robot space. Kozak said about 16,000 social robots shipped in 2017, with a compound annual growth rate to “remain modest” at about 26% from 2015 to 2020. Recent development trends have focused on “understanding intent as well as perceiving mood and reacting to different personalities,” he said.
“Mobility is also important, such as with Zenbo from Asus,” added Kozak. “For social robot developers, the main challenges are separating [themselves] from voice assistants. Today, many social robots are simply smart speakers in a different form factor.”
To overcome this, Kozak argues that social robots must become more autonomous and able to “understand emotion and when to provide suggestions or notifications.” This means that “natural and conversational language is critical, especially for social robots focused on senior care.”
“Working closely with various stakeholders, from senior care specialists to child-care experts will also be a strategy to consider,” said Kozak. “For example, Mattel cancelled its all-in-one baby monitor due to privacy concerns and the potential impact on children.”
Social robots and virtual assistants will likely play a larger role in senior care in coming years, but barriers such as price points, and Internet connection requirements could slow this growth. “As such, social robots could be utilized by professional care facilities, or deployed by nurses for in-home care in order to prioritize needs, all while reducing costs,” said Kozak.
Robot expands social interaction for isolated humans
Another example of a social robot that uses technology similar to virtual assistants is Fribo, developed in South Korea. The robot aims to help younger people living alone to overcome feelings of social isolation. Fribo “listens” to ambient noise activities in users’ homes, and delivers this information to other close friends who also own Fribos.
Jinwoo Kim, professor of HCI at Yonsei University, and CEO of HAll Inc., said the development team wanted to provide a social networking robot that “promotes additional special interactions with others outside, going beyond the user-robot interaction.”
“We thought of environmental differences between one-person households and other households with families,” said Kim. “We realized that it was an absence of living noise that is created during any activities in the living environment. We have built our Fribo around the idea of utilizing this auditory information.”
Chan Mi Park, a Ph.D student on Kim’s team, said the information delivered by Fribo allows users to “have some sort of sense of other’s presence.” Park added that they can “seek comfort and maintain close relationships more easily than by browsing through each other’s social networking services.”
The device recognizes eight types of environmental sounds, including vacuum cleaner motors, microwaves, washing machines, gas stove levers turning, computer keyboards, refrigerator doors closing, entrance doors closing, and windows sliding.
Park said the initial commercialization of the robot will occur by Q2 2020, with the team then expanding activities to other Asian countries that have similar cultural characteristics.
“In the near future, we are going to depend upon AI assistants for support in overcoming negative societal issues like depression and social isolation,” said Park. “They are going to be our companion. Thus, it is of great significance to have AI assistants that can detect human emotion and express a sense of empathy.”