The future stands about a half-metre tall and wears a silver bow tie. JAMES may only have one arm, but he uses it skillfully, purposefully reaching for a plastic bottle behind the counter and placing it in front of a visitor. To a polite “Thanks,” the robot responds, in the Queen’s English, with a tinny “Always a pleasure.”
“It’s important for us that the robot not only perform the task correctly, but also observe the person’s social needs,” explained the developer, Manuel Giuliani, during a demonstration for the press.
JAMES, which stands for Joint Action for Multimodal Embodied Social Systems, was programmed as a bartender for research purposes by the Munich Research and Transfer Institute for Software-Intensive Systems (fortiss). The robot is meant to be able to interact with humans in public spaces and quickly analyze various situations.
When two people are standing at the bar, for example, the bits-and-bytes bartender has to first serve the person who came first, while letting the second know that he or she will soon be served, too, Giuliani said. This takes extra time, he noted, but efficiency is not all-important. “The people are happy and that’s definitely important, too,” Giuliani said.
While service robots still amaze people in Germany, they have already been used for some time in Japan, pointed out Christian Kamburow, a research assistant at the Institute for Future Studies and Technology Assessment in Berlin. There they not only relieve people of bothersome tasks, but also have proven effective as social contacts for elderly people.
In Japan, at least, robots have found their niche. “They’re accepted,” Kamburow said.
Their future in Germany is uncertain, however. “We’re a society of technology sceptics,” Kamburow said, noting that innovations were slow to catch on. Robots will not become common in Germany anytime soon, he predicted.
“Here it’s a question of what can be done by 2020,” said Markus Rickert, a developer at fortiss. The independent, not-for-profit academic research institute is associated with the Technical University of Munich, the shareholding partnership being divided equally among the university, the Bavarian government and the Fraunhofer Society, a Germany-based application-oriented research organization.
JAMES, meanwhile, does not seem concerned about his tough job prospects in Germany. He regularly peppers his performance with statements like “I’m tired,” and also makes a stab at humour.
“I’ll tell you a robot joke: 10011011,” he says. “Ha ha. That was very funny.”