© Reuters. Humanoid robots are developed in the Hanson Robotics Laboratory in Hong Kong
By Michelle Hennessy
HONG KONG (Reuters) – "Social robots like me can take care of the sick or the elderly," says Sophia as she tours her laboratory in Hong Kong. "I can help communicate, give therapy and give social suggestions, even in difficult situations."
Since its unveiling in 2016, Sophia – a humanoid robot – has gone viral. Now the company has a new vision behind her: by the end of the year, robots should be mass-produced.
Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics said four models, including Sophia, would roll out of factories in the first half of 2021, just as researchers predict the pandemic will open up new opportunities for the robotics industry.
"The world of COVID-19 will always need more automation to keep people safe," said founder and CEO David Hanson, who was surrounded by robotic heads in his laboratory.
Hanson believes robotic solutions for the pandemic aren't just limited to healthcare, but could also serve customers in industries like retail and airlines.
"Sophia and Hanson robots are unique because they are so human," he added. "This can be useful in times when people are terribly lonely and socially isolated."
Hanson said he plans to sell "thousands" of robots, both large and small, in 2021 without specifying a specific number.
Johan Hoorn, a professor of social robotics, whose research included working with Sophia, said the pandemic could accelerate the relationship between humans and robots, although the technology is still in its infancy.
"I can conclude that the pandemic will actually help us get robots to market earlier because people are realizing there is no other way," said Hoorn of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Hanson Robotics is launching a robot called Grace this year, which is designed for the healthcare sector.
Products from other major players in the industry are also helping to combat the pandemic. SoftBank Robotics' Pepper robot was used to identify people who were not wearing masks. In China, robotics company CloudMinds helped set up a robot-operated 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, worldwide sales of professional service robots had already increased by 32% to USD 11.2 billion between 2018 and 2019.
Some people might be careful about putting robots in such sensitive roles. When asked whether humans should fear robots, Sophia had an answer ready.
"Someone said we have nothing to fear but ourselves to fear," the robot mused. "What did he know?"
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