It might not be happening in the United States yet, but in certain spots around the world, robots are taking over the service industry. One of the many robots finding their way into hospitals, airports, and retail centers is the Qihan Sanbot, which made its debut around this time last year at IFA. In that year, Sanbot has found its way into airports, hospitals, and retail centers in China, doing everything from giving people directions to providing them with more information about things they want to buy.
But, Sanbot was limited in a lot of ways. Its flipper arms were really only good for dancing, waving, and generally being adorable, and its voice recognition wasn’t always on point. Sanbot ended up being pretty good for business just by virtue of being a novelty, but once the novelty wears off, it’s hard to imagine why you couldn’t just replace Sanbot with a fixed tablet and a digital personal assistant.
Clearly, a lot of people at Qihan have been mulling that over, because the next incarnation of Sanbot is coming soon, and it means business. It’s named Sanbot King Kong, and if we had to guess, we’d say it earned that name because it’s one pretty strong robot. The basic design, with that cute face and tablet chest, is about the same, but the chassis of Sanbot has gotten a lot of design tweaks. Those tweaks include a new four-wheel drive system that lets Sanbot King Kong speed along at a brisk top speed of 11 miles per hour. Meanwhile, not only is the body stronger, the bot can actually shift its weight. That means the robot can tow up to 165 pounds behind it without toppling over.
But, the change that caught our attention is the arms. Qihan has ditched the flippers for arms and hands, and yes, each of those fingers can move independently. This alone is going to dramatically change what Sanbot is capable of. With fingers, Sanbot King Kong can actually hold things like trays of food or packages, making Sanbot’s ability to move much more practical. Sanbot King Kong has a couple of rails that can flip down to help it carry stuff, too.
Sanbot should also be a better listener this time around. The team has used a six-microphone array to bolster language recognition, one of the shortcomings of the original design. The bot should be more attentive, too. Sanbot King Kong uses a more advanced kind of obstacle detection called vSLAM, which takes into account information from cameras, IR cameras, and sonars to create a virtual map of the robot’s surroundings. vSLAM includes depth information, too, so Sanbot should be able to actively create paths to avoid obstacles, instead of just stopping right in front of them and then turning away.
Of course, like before, this all depends on software development. Sanbot, whose brain is based on IBM’s Watson and voice assistant software from Nuance, has been left open as a platform for developers, with Qihan sending out all the tools necessary for anyone to write programs for the bot. That means individual hospitals, stores, and airports can create programs tailored to their needs — and it also means that Sanbot King Kong will be as successful as its users are creative. Fortunately, those developers will have way more toys to play with this time around.
So, will we start seeing Sanbot King Kong roaming the States anytime soon? That might be a stretch — in talking with members of the Sanbot team, I learned that Sanbot hasn’t made much headway in the West over the past year. The team has found countries like China and Japan a little more open to the idea of interacting with robots in a natural setting — maybe it’s because we’ve all watched Terminator too many times, but the idea is simply a tougher sell on this side of the world. Unfortunately, Sanbot gaining arms and hands and being named King Kong probably won’t make it seem any less threatening!
Still, there are some things working in Sanbot’s favor. The Sanbot platform allows developers to choose whether they want to run apps stored on Qihan’s cloud servers or run apps locally stored. That’s a big deal for businesses and hospitals that need to adhere to very strict security standards!
If there’s one in Sanbot might have with King Kong, it’s probably in the medical field. Not only can Sanbot provide companionship for patients (something Qihan has seen happen in China), the King Kong model can now carry around trays of food and medicine, or possibly even push a wheelchair.
But, that all depends on how well Qihan has implemented their design changes and how effectively developers can take advantage of them. Even if Sanbot King Kong is as strong as promised, there’s going to be tons of work and testing that needs to be done before the bot can actually be trusted to work as a waiter without dropping food, let alone be trusted with a wheelchair.
One thing’s for sure — regardless of how good Sanbot King Kong ends up being, we can’t wait to actually see it in action! Qihan says they’ll be showing it off at CES in Las Vegas next January, and we’ll for sure be there to check it out. Maybe someone will have taught it to shake hands by then!