Robots are becoming more human-looking thanks to the pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic is pushing robots — long used for everything from heavy lifting to online customer service — toward finally becoming more lifelike.

“I’ve been very worried about COVID-19 lately,” said Sophia, a creation of the Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics. Sophia, who has appeared onstage at a multitude of technology conferences and even appeared on “The Tonight Show,” is one of the world’s best-known androids — robots designed to appear humanlike. Sophia can now carry on a conversation, offer a range of facial expressions and even high-five.

Hanson designed the robot in 2016 and has been improving the technology ever since. Last month, a piece of art Sophia co-created was auctioned for $688,000 — the first time an artwork created by a robot has been sold.

But the company doesn’t intend to make an army of artists. Instead, the robots are meant to be used as health care aides, using a chest-mounted thermal camera to take a person’s temperature and pulse. They will start rolling out of the factory in the first half of this year, company founder and CEO David Hanson told Reuters recently. He plans to sell “thousands,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has made robots more common. Businesses now use them for tasks like disinfecting public areas and delivering food. Experts in automation predict the COVID-19 crisis will make people even more willing to rely on robots, especially for jobs that are low-paid and potentially dangerous.

But there’s also a new emphasis on making robots more humanlike. 

Promobot, a Russian company, is creating machines that can work in customer service alongside their human counterparts. Currently it has about 10 of these robots in use. They can respond to voice commands and help process applications.

At $42,000 apiece, the robots aren’t cheap. But the makers point out that, unlike human workers, they never need a lunch break — or vacation.



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