When a restaurant in Kannur opened its doors to the public recently, the staff and owners were left astounded. Waiting beyond the doors on the opening day were a long line of customers and it was not just for the ambience and the quality of food. Word had got around about a novelty like one never seen before in the state — three robots named Aleena, Helen and Jane would be welcoming the guests and also serving food at the said restaurant. The five-feet-tall robots are operated by sensors. They even have the ability to give instructions so that their path could be cleared if they sense obstacles. The restaurant, co-owned by Malayalam actor Maniyanpilla Raju and his friends, is the first hotel in the state to hire robots to serve food.
A foodie, Raju says that it was a life-long wish of his to own a restaurant, but again not a regular one. When two of his friends expressed their interest to start one, Raju had this to say to them, “I want something exciting to entice me!” It was then that his friends revealed their plan to bring more than one robot to serve at their restaurant.
“The robots were bought from China after the required formalities. They move through magnetic sensor tapes on the floor. Robots, I knew, would be a big draw with children for sure,” he says. That would be an understatement because not only children, but even families seem to be enjoying the robotic experience going by the crowds that come here from far off districts to meet Aleena, Helen and Jane.
Humanoid robots seem to be making an appearance in the state in various roles. Scripting history, the Kerala police had introduced a robot named KP-BOT in Sub Inspector rank to receive and guide visitors at the police headquarters in the capital, which again was a first in the state. The humanoid developed by ASIMoV Robotics, a Kochi-based startup, moves on wheels, has a moving neck, a chest display, vision capability and can identify humans when programmed.
Jayakrishnan, CEO of the firm, staunchly believes that the future will be an artificial intelligence-driven world. He has been working with robots for the past 15 years and built his first robot in 1992. “We initially worked with robotic manipulator arms which were shipped to the U.S. and Canada and soon entered the business in a full-fledged manner.” He founded ASIMoV Robotics in 2012 when he realised the world was working with service robots in a big way. That is how he built a service robot ISRA (Intelligent service robot assistant) which was a full-sized humanoid robot with movable arms and legs, capable of cooking and serving food; but the demand was not what he had expected and soon he was back to making manipulator arms. A ray of hope appeared in 2016 when he got an enquiry from HDFC Bank to build a robot to address lobby management issues. Soon, Jayakrishnan was back to making humanoid robots and robot named IRA was delivered in 2017, but again, the demand was not like what he had expected.
Things have changed now, he says. “We have a lot of competition in the humanoid section and it is a good sign that the market is getting mature.” What makes the humanoid robots made by Jayakrishnan different is that they have movable limbs and minimalistic facial gestures like movable eyes giving a very ‘live’ feel. “The robots we build are fully autonomous and like human beings they can navigate an obstacle and reroute to reach its destination. “Recently, HDFC Bank came back to us to have their robot updated,” he reveals. One more robot has been supplied to ESAF Bank in Thrissur. His company also built the AI based life size, multi-purpose humanoid SAYABOT(SAYA) which was a huge hit at the National Technological Conference— Emerge 2018. Jayakrishnan requires 15 days to make the hardware for a robot, but it is the customisation that requires one week to a few months. Talking of the challenges he faces, Jayakrishnan names internet connectivity as a major obstacle since the software of the robots works on cloud platforms.
“Also, unless there is mass production, prices will remain high. When traction is there, costs will definitely get lower,” he states. Jayakrishnan’s ultimate aim is to use robots for the care of the elderly.
Very recently, visitors at Euphoria 2k19, a two-day national level tech fest at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, were pleasantly surprised when a robot welcomed them with voice greetings and handshakes at the fest venue. Named Professor Red, the robot was the brain child of third-year MCA student Joseph Philip, who built its body parts from trash materials like used cardboard, plastic bottles, etc. Armed with a computer, 12MP camera and two speakers, Professor Red was launched at the fest and had the ability to respond to certain key words and also had limited face recognition ability.
Various robot making camps organised in the state are testimony to the scope and popularity of integrating artificial intelligence into human life. Several technical colleges in the state now have a robotics wing.
New Jersey-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) have sanctioned 12000 USD for the Artificial Intelligence projects at SCMS Robotics Centre at SCMS Engineering College in connection with the smart switching system for the flood-affected regions of the state. The objective of the project is to prevent the overflow of pit latrine and loss of accessibility to the latrine during flood, which may lead to severe health problems. Dr. Sunil Jacob, Director, SCMS Robotics Centre at SCMS Engineering College, and his team had proposed the projects as part of SCMS outreach programme towards socially relevant projects. The first phase funding of 3000 USD has been released. This venture is the first one of its kind in Asia, getting funding from US agency in 2019....