Humanoid robots equipped with artificial intelligence are being used in all different ways from helping residents in nursing homes to assisting teachers in schools. In this episode, APU Business Program Director Dr. Wanda Curlee talks to Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth about the future of humanoid robots in industry from transportation, logistics, retail, healthcare, education and more. Also learn about Sophia and how it’s expected that in the not-too-distant future, humanoid robots will be incorporated into our everyday lives from helping with household chores to babysitting children.
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Dr. Wanda Curlee: Welcome to the podcast, I’m your host, Wanda Curlee. Today we will be chatting about humanoid robots using AI. My guest today is Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth, who is a professor at American Public University. He has many years of experience working with artificial intelligence. Oliver, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Thank you, Wanda. I really think this is a really exciting topic, especially today’s timeframe with how artificial intelligence and robotics has moved along, and really this pandemic in this year is increasing a lot of interest in humanoid AI robots, but thank you again for inviting me for this presentation and discussion.
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Great, I’m glad you’re here. I also think that humanoid robots are fascinating, but many of us think of it like “The Terminator,” or the movie “A.I.” Give us your thoughts about robots that use AI.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, robots that use AI have been used a long time. The last 50 years they’ve been around mostly, but they even go back to 1495. Leonardo da Vinci put a suit of armor together, made it stand up, and walk, and sit down, and that’s probably the first one that came around in 1495, think about that.
Robots being used today in many guises, they’ve been used in rest homes, nursing homes, for example. I know some people who were in nursing homes and my mother was one of those by the way. She had some problems with reality and she kept saying the same thing over and over again, and it was a nice conversation, but it was about one topic and it might be about ice cream.
But they had a robot, they really did, a little robot that would sit there and smile at you and it helps them. They talk to it and they can say, “Wow, I really like the ice cream. I like the ice cream, do you like the ice cream?” And it would nod and do things in an affirmative manner, and they got to see them as almost human, it’s like a teddy bear, you know how a kid has a teddy bear?
They’ve been used to help people who are older and they’re being used in younger people, too. The schools in Japan, for example, build little robots for first, second, third graders to substitute for teachers. They’re there and they’re increasing in popularity and use for helping different ages of people.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s interesting, and we’ll get into that topic a little later on, but could you, for our audience, so they understand, what is the difference between a robot with AI and a mindless robot, for example?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, the mindless robot’s downstairs in my house. It’s the robot that’s cleaning my floor right now, it’s running around. I had to close the door, it keeps bumping into things, but there are robots that do specific tasks.
When we see television logistics systems, or manufacturing systems, you’ll see a automotive manufacturing company and you will see robots that are doing things, they’re, I call them mindless. They have one specific task to do, and that’s what they do, and they do it well.
In fact, a lot of times you’ll see these robot arms that are welding or doing something, some of them may be encased with a glass shield around it, because if you get your hand near it, it will weld your hand. It doesn’t really know whether you are a piece of metal that’s going to a carburetor, or whether it’s your fingers, and so you got to be careful not to get near them.
They are very valuable, they’re very useful. And you will see them in commercials, in logistics warehouses, where they’re moving boxes. Now, they are a little bit, I won’t call them smarter, but if you step in front of them, they will stop.
In fact, you’ll see automobiles today, advertisements for your car, you’ll be driving your car, you’re in charge of the car, you’re driving it, and all of a sudden you’re looking left and right, or working on your cell phone, or talking to somebody, and the car slams on brakes because you weren’t looking at the car in front of you that stopped. And your little AI robotic system, mindless, but it’s looking out for something in front of you, it will engage the braking system.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So I was reading some articles about Sophia, the humanoid robot, and I’m sure you’re aware of her, but she uses AI, and I’ve been watching her progress through YouTube and saw what she was in 2016 and how she’s progressed. She can crack jokes, she has some facial expressions, but what are your thoughts about the AI she’s using, and should we be scared of it?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: There may be some people who are afraid of robots taking over their jobs, and we’ve had movies made in our generation where robots have taken over society and tried to be human, totally human, but I wouldn’t worry about it.
What she is, she’s a humanoid robot, she has facial expressions, like you said, cracks jokes, carries on a conversation. She’ll look at you in the eyes, and actually hold conversations, look at your eyes. She actually recognizes faces and does all those things. I do believe the United Nations even named her a global citizen robot, and I do believe she has citizenship in Saudi Arabia.
She has some very deep learning capabilities, what we really know, and in terms of learning capabilities it’s still data. It’s amount of information that’s put together for Sophia to be able to react and do a movement, or do some kind of movement or make you feel good, smile at you.
But Sophia is like a robot who learns to play chess, or checkers. The same kind of logic, the same “thinking” I’m using the word thinking in quotes, isn’t Sophia as a chess robot. And we’ve had robots that were trained, they didn’t know anything about chess or checkers, but they play it with a human, and all of a sudden they learn this move goes there and this move goes there, they know what winning and losing is, in a sense of a data like zero and one might be losing or winning.
And they understand and learn how to play chess and checkers, and today AI robotic systems beat every human chess player there is. The most advanced chess player was beat years ago by a robot, which was very exciting.
But I see her as positive in terms of the perspective that people bring to seeing robots as not replacing you, but helping you. Sophia has a goal, like I mentioned, with my mom and some other older folks. Sophia would be great in a nursing home, dealing with people, holding their hands, walking down an aisle, or just sitting there on a bench, enjoying the sunset and talking to them because Sophia doesn’t get tired like humans do.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Correct. So Sophia has emotions and you’ve talked about how emotions are good in maybe nursing homes, and there also would have practical aspects for children who are going through medical needs. Do you see AI robots helping children that have to go through some scary procedures?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yes. Whether it’s scary procedures or just in living. There are patients that are young children and they’re very scared in the hospital, and we have great nurses and doctors who are really skilled at making children feel calm before they had a painful operation, but that’s really important, but it’s still painful.
A robot system, like a teddy bear that talks, a robot system, that’s sitting there and they know it’s a robot, but they know it’s something different, it’s something special, it’s more than human, and they like that more than human, their aspect is more than human. And so, it would help calm them down, hold their hands while an operation is underway, that would be useful.
Another aspect is a teacher helping maybe students in a classroom that have special needs, they need to be a lot of care and concern from the teachers. Maybe they have some emotional problems, and that can be dealt with a human teacher, and they are, but if you’ve got a classroom of several, the teacher’s really going to get worn down by the end of the day, and that’s why there’s several teachers helping these students.
Several robots could be helpful with those students as well, K-12 students who really need someone to be there with them, to tell them, “Okay, let’s not do that right now, let’s do this,” or “draw this color,” or “pickup this block and move there.” It’d be like the teacher. So I see Sophia-type robots really helpful in every way.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So where do you see other aspects of robotics with AI being used in the healthcare setting?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, healthcare setting, surgery. It’s amazing that robots are being tested out in surgical operations. Now, I don’t see, right now, robots completing a total cardiovascular surgery stuff for a doctor, but they are testing out robots that have an understanding in their AI brain, an understanding of a surgical procedure. They’ve got to cut and suture what they cut.
And they can go inside the body in a safer way, in a less invasive way than a human. Human hands are big, robot tentacles, they can go inside a smaller hole inside a human body, and maybe cut something, and cut a piece of skin and sew it together, cut something out and replace it, they can do that.
And there is evidence that the robotic systems that are helping medical doctors perform surgeries that the robotic systems will perform these duties, and the scarring will be smaller, the amount of pain will be less, if not any at all, and the patient will be able to get out of the hospital a lot faster instead of staying five days or seven days, you may be out this afternoon, the facts are there.
The thing is, it’s like any operations. I’ve had open-heart surgery, they split my chest from throat to belly button, and moved all my parts around. I got ribs that are wired together with eight pieces of wire, because they split my ribs apart. They don’t do that anymore, that’s old fashioned.
Now they have a robot arm goes into a little hole in the side and does the operation that’s needed. And instead of me getting out in seven days and having complications afterwards, these people are getting out and going about their life normally. It’s just amazing, the robots are helping.
Now, they’re not replacing doctors, I don’t think they will for a while, but I can see maybe beyond my lifetime, they might have total robotic surgery operations on maybe something on your foot. You’re not going to die from it if they do something wrong, something smaller, but it is being helpful in many ways in these surgeries.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: That’s amazing Oliver. Yes, there’s many practical aspects for robots with AI, not only in surgery, but for other things. Let’s move a little bit to nursing homes, we’ve talked about that. I read an article where in nursing homes they’ve brought in some robotic arms, and it has some AI in it because it learns each patient. And these robotic arms can take the patient from the bed to the wheelchair, or to a chair, and move them back into the bed, and they don’t hurt the patient.
To me, this brings safety to the staff and safety to the patient as well. Because let’s face it, staff can get hurt when they’re moving patients or they’ve had a bad day, so they rough house the patient for whatever reason. What are some other aspects that you might see that we could use them in nursing homes?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Well, very clearly, I have friends in nursing homes. Routinely, I work for an organization here that dials up and calls, and once a week I’ll call some people who are in a nursing home and chat with them, it’s part of what we do in our state here.
And I find that there are residents who are either sitting there and they’re saying, “We usually get a glass of wine at four in the afternoon, but they don’t come today, they’re coming late,” or “I’d like someone to come and turn on my TV because I can’t get up there,” or “I keep pushing this button and no one’s come for three hours to look at me,” or “bring me that magazine that I know came.”
A robotic system can very easily replace these human tasks, because the nurses there, oh my God, they are so wonderful. The nurses and the staff, they work hard on these patients and visitors, but a lot of times the amount of time spent on one person, not just to bring something to them, is demanding in terms of time.
To give someone a bath, for example, it takes, it’s not just 30 minutes, it may take an hour because of getting in and out of a wheelchair and other things like that. The robots can help with that, but there are these other little things that make a person living in the home feel better.
If all of a sudden you pushed a button in your room and you don’t leave your room. There are people I talked to who don’t leave their room, they’re in their bed, or they’re in their chair, they don’t go outside and they push a button because they want something.
If all of a sudden little Sophia can come knocking on the door and say, “Hi, Virginia, what do you want?” And say, “Well, I’d like a glass of wine,” and it said, “I’ll be right back.” And they go down the hall and they get the glass of wine and they bring it back for their four o’clock wine. That would be absolutely great, or it could be, “I need help getting to the bathroom, Sophia, can you wheel me over there?” I’m in my wheelchair, and Sophia can push the wheelchair.
The nursing staff can see what’s going on, or know what’s going on. These robot systems would be so useful, and they are being useful, and I really expect to see more of them in nursing homes or other places like that because the humans, they get tired, and we’re talking 24/7 service.
Someone needs to go to the bathroom at three in the morning and Sophia could come and be right there. So I’d really see a lot of positive things happening with humanoid AI robotic systems in places like that.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So Oliver, let’s switch gears a little bit. So do you see the AI and Sophia or follow-ons to Sophia ever being practical for everyday life? Will you and I use them in our homes, or will it be in retail or other areas?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yes. Driving cars is getting better these days. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m amazed at robotic systems that are really encased in just normal cars. I don’t mean autonomous vehicles, although they’re there, and they’re increasing.
We have 18 wheelers that are driving around the country today by themselves, not many, but they’re there. The drones are delivering packages in test cases. There can be a little bit of robotic system that knows you can’t deliver here because there’s something in the way. It knows there’s something in the way, so it won’t land, it’ll go back home, to the logistics warehouse.
But I do see more applications happening and not just cleaning the floors, you may see something like Sophia in a home that will bring you something, and it’ll bring you breakfast, or there to just sit with you. Again, at the older generations, or even the younger generation may need someone just to babysit them.
And I can see babysitting Sophia, say you’ve got two kids through age eight and nine, and you’ve got to run down to the store for 30 minutes. You may have a Sophia who’s there with them, helping them color, look at TV, play games, but Sophia could be there babysitting and a security device as well. They know who’s going to come, they know that you are the only one supposed to come through that front door and they are not going to let anybody in. So I can see babysitters.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: So Oliver, we were talking about the practical sense of humanoid robots in our everyday life, but how about other industries? I could see it practical in manufacturing as we’ve talked about a little bit, but how about things like logistics or reverse logistics? I know that’s your area of expertise as well. Can you talk to us a little about humanoid robots and AI in logistics and reverse logistics?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: The logistics and supply chain, moving packages, moving boxes, is very big with robotic systems. All this fiscade warehouses are using them, they really are. Walmart’s using them, for example. In fact, Walmart’s invested heavily in robotic systems to help not only move items around the back store, but also they have robotic systems that are going down the aisles checking on what’s missing.
Now, and there was a funny story coming up on this one. Walmart has 500 stores right now in America that have robots that go down the aisles and check on, “Okay, is the inventory there? Is the aisle empty? Are there two boxes of something that should be 10 boxes?” The data is reported instantly in a database system, so a manager, a human, can go replace it, or a robot could replace it.
Now, there’s a funny thing happening here. In this pandemic, Walmart has people who are going and getting your groceries. A human will go down the aisle and pick all these things up, put it in a basket, and sure enough, at three o’clock, the person will come outside, will make phone call and they’ll put it in the back of my Jeep and we’d go home. By them doing that, Walmart found out that that human became an inventory tracking robot. Also, they’ve got an inventory robot that goes in and checks on what’s missing. But the human who picks up your groceries for your online purchasing is doing the same inventory management.
So Walmart’s decided, I think we’ll stop using robots for inventory management. We’ll use them more for mopping the floor, cleaning up, and also in the backroom and in the distribution centers, that’s the big warehouses for Walmart. And that’s where they have 3,000 or 4,000 people working, but they use robots to help move cargo that’s heavy. They will move the heavy cargo and put it up on the top shelf and things.
But it’s interesting to see that not all robots will keep their job, but it’s in the logistics field, humans and robots will continue working together, and Walmart’s a good example to keep your eye on.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Walmart has been very progressive with robots, and it’s interesting to see how they’re changing by analyzing data where the robots should be used. Let’s just talk about computers, when they came into the business area. I had some bosses that absolutely would not do anything with a computer. They’d have their secretary come in and turn it on for them, and then they would have their secretary print all their email, they never touched it during the day. Eventually, they accepted it because secretaries went away. Do you see humanoid robots, because let’s face it, we have AI all around us, will they be accepted quicker than desktop computers?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: That’s a good question. Oh my goodness, I would say yes. Okay, quick answer, I think they may be more acceptable, but I’d put a big but there too. Because I do remember when the first big computers came to town, I was at Fort Monroe, Virginia, I worked for the military. And we replaced electric typewriters with big computers, and they were huge computers, and taught the secretaries to type on them and print papers out for us and that was cool.
And after they had their training class and they started using them, they brought back up their typewriters and they put flowers on the tops of those computers. Those computers became flowerpots, really, they just said, “I am not going to use this computer.” The flower pots on top of the computer were a great example of how people rejected technology and now everybody uses a laptop computer in those buildings, the same office, everyone’s got a laptop.
One thing that happened is the secretaries went away. We type our own papers now, so jobs did get lost, but we were able to do more work. I see technology changing in a fast way, to go back to your question, the acceptance of a robot, of Sophia, would I accept a Sophia in our house? Yes, I would. And I wouldn’t be objected to it.
No, I may be biased because of my affinity for AI systems, but I can see people who don’t have a lot of technology, if all of a sudden there was a little Sophia in their life to help with the cooking, to help with some chores around the house, have someone go take out the trash. That would be neat, and I could see people accepting that readily for normal household chores, I really do.
Dr. Wanda Curlee: I could see that happening, although they might be scared of it a little bit at first, but I think they would come to get used to it. So a little off topic, I’m wondering if a humanoid robots with AI could eventually help developing countries.
I know that many developing countries missed the pager phenomenon that we had here in the United States and in Europe, do you see this maybe happening again with humanoid robots with AI? So for example, could they be starting to use robots maybe quicker than we did in accepting cell phones?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: We’ve gotten used to being connected together with technology. It’s become a 24/7 connection. It’s part of our skin, we can’t live without it. Really, we can’t live without it. Try to cut off your cell phone and put it in the shoe box and don’t pick it up for five days, I dare you. Can you live that way?
I think that technology, it did move into other countries. And I was working with reverse logistics people who recycle these cell phones, and I am amazed that these cell phones that we routinely just throw away into our recycle bin, you think that someone’s going to tear them up and take the parts out or something, no. What they’re doing, there is a reverse logistics organization, international, that takes all these cell phones, your little flip phone, if you’ve got an old flip phone and you give it to the recycle bin, they will refurbish that and hopefully erase all the telephone numbers, and they will go to these third world countries and sell them or give them away to the residents, to that state, to that country.
So I do believe they’ll be more acceptable to robots and humanoid robots in third world countries if they see them coming. I’m sure there’ll be somebody who will throw a rock at them and not like them. Not everybody in America likes robots, not everybody in America likes cell phones. Folks in the nursing homes don’t like cell phones, a lot of them. It’s like, “I want my old phone that’s on the wall with a wire, and that’s all I want and period.”
Dr. Wanda Curlee: Oliver, this has absolutely been great talking to you about humanoid robots, and I see humanoid robots infiltrating slowly through culture and throughout the world. Do you have any last parting remarks?
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yes. While I am absolutely an advocate of humanoid AI robotic systems, as a surgeon, surgeon’s helper, and someone to take care of an old person in the old folks home, or a kid. I also want to warn you, the robot brain is based on data, billions of pieces of data, about how something works. Billions of pieces of data about who you are, your facial recognition.
AI robotic systems are based on a lot of data that us humans put in front of it. We give it data to study. We have recordings. We have video, we have audio recordings of people. We have actions we do, how to chop wood, how to cook a biscuit. There are procedures, there are recipes to follow, these robots can do that, but how much of the data is in error? Humans make mistakes and robots will make mistakes because we are giving them the same data, same procedures.
I’ll give you one example. I used to develop AI systems and I developed it before the army logistics system, and we had a field manual in which it had rules. It says, if A happens then B happens, or if A happens then B and C happens.
And I had a programmer who was from India and she understood English but she didn’t understand compound sentences, and she wrote the rules for the AI system to use that says, if A happens, B happens, if A happens D happens, not if A happens, B and D can happen together.
And so, we had some weird errors happening that all of a sudden the AI system’s working fine, but now and then when combinations are needed, the combinations weren’t happening, only one thing was happening after A happened.
And I found that humans were making mistakes in putting data way back then in the 1980s and ’90s. And I just want to make sure today that Sophia’s knowledge, for example, is accurate, and we’re going to have a way of always continuing to measure that Sophia is going to do the accurate thing, the right thing.
And it’s not going to kill you or anything, but we need to make sure that data and information provided is accurate and some way of measuring it, the metric is important. And I don’t hear a lot of that about the metric of the validity of the data inside that brain. We hear a lot of how it’s doing things, like we’ve talked about, but that’s my next issue I’d like to work on, is what about the metric? How do we measure the success rate of our humanoid AI robots?
Dr. Wanda Curlee: We need to be able to understand what happens in that black box, what goes in and what comes out. So I totally agree with you, Oliver. Thank you again, Oliver for being here and thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about this topic and similar issues in artificial intelligence by reviewing other blogs, stay well and see you soon.