How the right robots can bring us real benefits

2 Nov 2023

Niamh Donnelly, Akara Robotics. Image: Elaine Burke

The latest episode of For Tech’s Sake features Akara Robotics’ Niamh Donnelly who discussed the way in which robots are conceived as well as her thoughts on humanoid-style ones that have been making recent headlines.

We’ve come a long way from seeing robotic companions as something from the distant future. Not only have the likes of Boston Dynamics created dog-like robots, but a recent UN AI summit made waves earlier this year with its panel of human-like robots powered with generative AI to enhance its responses.

The robots at the conference gave major uncanny valley vibes as one calmly denied any interest in a robot rebellion when asked by a journalist.

But while these innovations are undoubtedly incredible in terms of what has been achieved, there are still robots that struggle with basic practical tasks.

For example, US start-up Zume intended to use robotics and automation to make pizza in ‘mobile kitchens’, with GPS-equipped ovens that could ensure pizzas were ready by the time the truck was near the customer. The start-up had raised as much as $445m, but it suffered from the critical flaw of not being able to keep the cheese from sliding off the pizza during the cooking process.

There are countless videos of robotic fails on YouTube, from hotdog makers that lose the bun in the process to ice-cream makers that hand customers an empty cone. But, to cut robots a break, the dexterity, depth of field perception, nerve sensitivity and other qualities that most humans have are incredibly hard to build and programme into a robot.

And not only is the tech and hardware side difficult to build, but there’s an entire psychological aspect to them as well. Going back to the uncanny valley-style humanoid robots at the UN AI summit, the robots of the future need to be accepted by society for them to actually be effective.

To learn more about this, we spoke to Akara Robotics co-founder Niamh Donnelly on the latest episode of For Tech’s Sake.

“If you want a robot to be accepted and for people to not be creeped out by it, you have to take that into account. If you build someone a robot that looks like a person, bring it into their workplace and say, ‘this is going to help you with your job’, it’s not going to get acceptance,” she said.

Akara Robotics is the creator of Stevie, a social care robot designed to be an assistant in elder care facilities. The team behind Stevie worked closely with charities supporting the elderly and spent months in trial studies at senior care facilities in the UK and the US.

The Irish start-up also created a robot equipped with ultraviolet technology designed to eliminate bacteria and viruses with the aim to make disinfecting hospitals safer and faster.

“What we need to do with robotics is look at problems and then build a robot around a solution for that problem rather than just building a robot – a human robot – and then trying to find different areas where it should work,” said Donnelly.

She added that the nursing robot, named Grace and dressed in hospital scrubs, would never work in a hospital setting because at the very least, it should be on wheels.

Check out the full episode with Niamh Donnelly and subscribe for more.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.