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As CBA’s robot Chip gets more ‘human’ it’s coming up against one of our toughest traits

George Nott | May 4, 2017
Social intelligence is one of the biggest challenges for interactive robotics, along with our sky high expectations.

Chip with William Judge, robotics innovation manager at CBA
Chip with William Judge, robotics innovation manager at CBA

We know exactly what the robots of the future will be like. We've already seen them.

In TV series Humans the 'synths' are docile servants that look just like us save for their stiff movements and electric green eyes. The ones in I, Robot are less humanoid, with a white gloss shell and circa-2004 Apple aesthetics. Ava in Ex Machina is somewhere in between, with a skin-covered face and exposed electronic innards.

Whatever form they take, we can picture them caring for the elderly, carrying the shopping, driving trains, serving coffee, doing physiotherapy, running errands: our docile, domesticated servants.

In August last year, a partnership between Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), real estate giant Stockland, the Australian Technology Network of Universities and University of Technology Sydney started work towards achieving this vision.

In the months since, researchers have been busy preparing Chip - their 1.7 metre tall, 100kg, $300,000 android - to meet the public and start work in the real world.

Chip is fast mastering the nuances of human interaction, can move autonomously around its environment and is forming some kind of social intelligence.

But there's a far more significant, non-technical challenge to overcome: our sky-high, sci-fi expectations.


Chip on the new block

CBA's Innovation Lab in Harbour Street, Sydney took delivery of Chip - a model REEM from Spain's PAL Robotics and the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere - eight months ago.

The robot has two stereo cameras for eyes, lasers to map its surroundings, 16 ultrasound sensors to navigate obstacles, microphones and speakers to listen and talk and a touch screen on its chest.

Since its arrival, the 'CANdroid' - as it is known within CBA - has been the subject of continuous testing and tinkering at the hands of researchers from QUT, UTS, RMIT, Curtin University and University of South Australia and the bank's own robotics team.

Their work means the robot is able to move around autonomously; detect, track and recognise faces; understand English and Mandarin; and perform physical interactions like giving people hugs, high fives and fist bumps. Those capabilities laid the foundations for the next stage of research: figuring out the boundaries and best practice in human-robot interactions.

"The social aspect of social robotics is so important, it is about understanding how people interact with technology, particularly technology that we might deem as artificially intelligent, and how we can create new technologies that better understand humans and interact with a social intelligence," says William Judge, robotics innovation manager at CBA and Chip's 'dad'.


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