one north fest

From The Terminator to Transformers, humanity's continued fascination with robots has long found its way into popular culture ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the term 'robot' ('forced labour').

While fictional droids run the gamut from the benevolent to the nefarious, they do have one thing in common: They are typically highly functional, possessing the ability to move with unmatched dexterity and converse effortlessly with the humans they share the screen with.

Dr Wong Choon Yue

Dr Wong Choon Yue, Research Fellow at NTU.

They are also endowed with something more.

"They exhibit behaviours that suggest that they are capable of emotions such as embarrassment, pride, love, joy and hatred. They display a sense of sympathy towards humans, as well as a sense of justice," said Dr Wong Choon Yue, a research fellow at the Robotics Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

Society's attitudes towards robots and its expectations of what they can do have been strongly influenced by these popular and pervasive notions of them, said Dr Wong, who spoke on 18 August 2017 at the one-north Festival on the topic "With Great Autonomy Comes Great Uncertainty".

Yet, given that today's real-life robots fall along a spectrum in terms of how autonomously they can function, such expectations about the current state of technology are often unrealistic, he added. 

More than meets the AI

Society's views on robots and artificial intelligence (AI) tend to be polarised into two camps.

On one side: People who are advocates of technology.

"They are strongly supportive of making everything highly capable and autonomous, and push for robotics solutions that take humans out of the loop," added Dr Wong.


Dr Wong Choon Yue says we need robots that can be autonomous or manual depending on the situation.

In the opposing camp: Naysayers — or those who resist change out of the fear that technological advances will deprive humans of their livelihoods.

There are, as expected, benefits and drawbacks to both these points of view.

While fully autonomous systems can achieve high efficiency at low cost, they also come with higher levels of uncertainty.

"Sometimes, even with the computers we use, it's not always clear what the technology is doing. This reduces us from being an active participant to being an observer, and that makes humans uncomfortable," said Dr Wong.

Likewise, while disavowing technology lets us stay within our comfort zones, it also means that we will never develop the disruptive innovations needed to better human lives and advance the economy.

"There is a need for a middle ground," said Dr Wong. "We need to have systems that are not at either extreme, but that can be autonomous or manual depending on the situation."

Achieving this middle ground will require mindset changes on the part of both technology developers and the public.

"Developers will need to incorporate human intervention into their systems. It doesn't necessarily mean that a system is less impressive if it needs humans."

On the other hand, Dr Wong advised the public not to "expect robots to be like those on television or in films."

Robots on parade

Dr Wong, who has extensive experience designing and building robots, also took the audience through some of his creations.

One of these is EDGAR, a telepresence robot onto which human users can project their facial expressions, upper body motions and speech.

(Eager editor: EDGAR is an acronym for Expressions Display and Gesturing Avatar Robot. See our previous story which mentions EDGAR.)

If such technology continues to improve, we might one day even be able to perform complicated tasks remotely — imagine cooking a meal for someone via a telepresence robot!


Expressions Display and Gesturing Avatar Robot 2, or EDGAR2, at NDP 2017. (Photo: Dr Wong Choon Yue)

"This is a new kind of communication," said Dr Wong.

"Humans started out by telecommunicating speech; this was followed by video imagery, which made communications richer. Now, we are able to communicate physical presence"

Here's some food for thought: While the first EDGAR needed to be controlled by humans, the successor — EDGAR-2, of course — is more autonomous, with the ability to talk to people, give directions and recommend dining options, for example.

"EDGAR-2 could function as a new form of information kiosk. We wanted it to change the way humans interact with technology," said Dr Wong.

The protocol droid even achieved nation-wide fame this year when it was chosen to host Singapore's National Day Parade 2017 along with four human emcees.

Man-Machine Match

"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination," goes a quote popularly misattributed to Albert Einstein, but the gist is true.

Dr Wong Choon Yue

Dr Wong Choon Yue: Ultimately, developers need to build avenues for human supervision and intervention into their robots.

While the EDGARs of Singapore may be outperformed by the robots developed by leading robotics companies, even those advanced models are prone to failures when it comes to tasks that robots are simply not good at — such as pattern recognition, bipedal walking and adapting to new situations, for example.

Ultimately, developers need to build avenues for human supervision and intervention into their robots, imbuing them with the right mix of human and machine qualities, as Dr Wong opined.  

"Humans are good at learning, recognition, adaptability and being able to use past experiences in new situations; we need to find ways to mix these qualities with what machines are good at — speed, precision, repeatability, strength and endurance."