ANA Avatar XPrize and the Next Frontier in Social Robotics
While most of us have faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, we’re happy to report that it’s been an extraordinarily great year for Sophia the Robot.
Indeed, a remarkable coincidence has occurred! The first commercially available and programmable R&D version of Sophia (named Sophia 2020) has just been launched by Hanson Robotics.
Simultaneously, Asha, Sophia’s new humanoid sibling, and almost identical twin was “born.” Asha was explicitly created for R&D use by Team Aham, Hanson Robotics’ partners in the ANA Avatar XPrize competition.
Sophia 2020, the Next Frontier of Social Robotics
No doubt, social robots are the next frontier of the human-robot coexistence. What are the key ingredients for these robots to be useful, engaging, supportive, and at the same time, mesmerizing? These qualities are some of the secret ingredients and the guiding principles behind the design and development of Sophia 2020. This includes selecting Sophia 2020’s sensors and hardware components, robustifying her unique face and head, intelligence and behavior development, and feature prioritization of the first SDK version. It took over a year for our hardware, software, R&D, and the creative teams to complete. And now, we have the finest example of a social robot from a thoughtful combination of art, creativity, science, and technology (and, of course, interdisciplinary teamwork).
From the great smile on her face to the graceful body language, from the human touch to the social interaction capabilities, Sophia 2020 defines a unique programmable robot with a world-renowned character.
Coincidence or Great Timing?
The coincidence is that Hanson’s B2A (business-to-academic) robot development started simultaneously when Team Aham was chosen for the ANA Avatar XPrize competition. With even more enthusiasm, we accelerated the development of Sophia 2020, and as an intermediate milestone, we developed Sophia’s sister, Asha, required as the R&D robot for the competition.
Now, as both Asha and the evolved version Sophia 2020 are ready and starting their unique journeys. Following are some of the fascinating early insights we’d like to share
Asha, The Hope
Asha (meaning hope) is a customized version of the B2A robot for the ANA Avatar XPrize and is now making her way to her new home at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru, India. Asha will be serving as a robotic avatar platform, a collaboration between Team Aham, comprised of IISc, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), and Hanson Robotics Limited.
The idea behind the XPrize competition is to combine various technological blocks innovatively to facilitate teleoperated tasks by an avatar robot (difficult for humans to perform) and to shape the next frontier of social robotics and telepresence avatars. With that hope, Asha being the sister of Sophia is capable of similar physical and social interaction abilities, also capable of teleporting not only the physical commands but also the emotional expressions. The team is working smartly to develop a coherent foundation to achieve this new level of innovation, driven by science.
A Project of Strategic Importance; a Use Case of Social Importance
This project is very strategic for us, as it begins to create a collaborative ecosystem, developer community, and equally important, a very impactful use case of teleoperated robots for healthcare, telemedicine, and other service sectors, validating as well as strengthening the vision behind Sophia 2020.
The Team Aham ANA Avatar XPrize project partners are adding significant value to the current software and hardware of the robot. The project helps improve the robot, creating a research-friendly simulation model, enabling to manipulate in a teleoperated manner, and improving the interaction capabilities.
TCS is focusing on integrating Asha’s torso with its autonomous mobile base to provide her with advanced mobility capability. The TCS team is also creating integration with various simulators and visualization tools to facilitate cutting-edge research. IISc is developing technology to produce teleoperation and tele-interaction capabilities to integrate with the robot platform.
The competition scenario enables us to improve Sophia 2020’s software and hardware iteratively, for example, by using the same foundational blocks, Sophia is now better controlled when it comes to grasping and manipulating objects.
Semi-Autonomy in an Avatar
Together the team is focusing on the greater vision to achieve semi-autonomy in teleoperation, which will make the robot more than merely an avatar but also leverage the embedded intelligence. For the robot operator, this reduces the cognitive load and the complexity of the interfaces, while facilitating faster reaction time and adding another layer of safety in the operational environment. This semi-autonomy will also help to mitigate issues related to blind zones and networks.
Unique Entry in the Competition
Our vision, plans, and competencies are unique. We aim to maximize the human participants’ immersive experience through better emotional connectivity. Our focus includes social interaction and social intelligence, bringing the key elements of empathy, emotion, human connection, with safety being the essential aspect. The competition will ensure that in the era of social distancing, technology will be there to avoid the risk of us getting socially or emotionally isolated. Our multidisciplinary nature of the technology development focused on a human-centered approach makes all the difference. In other words, these machines will help us to maintain the essence of being human — being social.
History in the Making
The software SDK equipped with multimodal interaction, navigation, and manipulation components, along with visualization tools, provides a complete package for research and development. With the dynamic personality of Sophia the Robot and the vibrancy of its design, Sophia 2020 will be bringing a brighter future to the world.
Sophia 2020 is adding a milestone chapter in the history of Hanson Robotics Limited and the collaborative ecosystem for the company. And, of course, Asha is already on a mission to create history.
We all are proud of these achievements and are honored to work with such esteemed partners who join us on this journey. Detailed specifications about Sophia 2020 can be found here.
Amit Kumar Pandey
President, CTO, and Chief Science Officer
Hanson Robotics Limited