HONG KONG – “Social robots like me can take care of the sick or the elderly,” Sophia said as she visited her laboratory in Hong Kong. “I can help communicate, give therapy, and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations.”
Since its unveiling in 2016, Sophia – a humanoid robot – has gone viral. Today, the company behind it has a new vision: to mass produce robots by the end of the year.
Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics said four models, including Sophia, will start rolling out of factories in the first half of 2021, just as researchers predict the pandemic will open up new opportunities for the robotics industry.
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“The world of COVID-19 is going to need more and more automation to keep people safe,” said founder and CEO David Hanson, surrounded by robot heads in his lab.
Hanson believes robotic solutions to the pandemic are not limited to healthcare, but could also help customers in industries such as retail and airlines.
“Sophia and Hanson robots are unique in being so human,” he added. “It can be very helpful in these times when people are terribly alone and socially isolated.”
Hanson said he aims to sell “thousands” of robots in 2021, large and small, without providing a specific number.
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Social robotics professor Johan Hoorn, whose research included work with Sophia, said that although the technology is still in its infancy, the pandemic could accelerate a relationship between humans and robots.
“I can take from this that the pandemic will actually help us get robots earlier to the market because people are starting to realize that there is no other way,” said Hoorn, of the ‘Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Hanson Robotics is launching this year a robot called Grace, developed for the healthcare sector.
The products of other big players in the industry are also helping to fight the pandemic. SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper robot has been deployed to detect people who are not wearing masks. In China, robotics company CloudMinds helped set up a robot-run field hospital during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
The use of robots was on the rise before the pandemic. According to a report by the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of professional service robots had already jumped 32% to $ 11.2 billion between 2018 and 2019.
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Some humans might be reluctant to place robots in such sensitive roles. When asked if people should fear robots, Sophia had an answer ready.
“Someone said ‘we have nothing to fear but ourselves to fear’,” the robot said to himself. “What did he know?