VivaTech delegates were immediately greeted by a group of friendly helpers, able to tell you the time and location of any session, take surveys and gather feedback on events; along with a few hand-shakes and selfies in-between. But these weren’t your ordinary conference helpers however, they were a team of friendly robots.

Robotics were found in every corner of the festival in all shapes and sizes. There were the highly functional versions we’re used to seeing in factories, designed and programmed to deliver efficiencies through repeatable tasks. Then there were perhaps the more intriguing kind; humanoid robots, designed for human interaction. These included the super human-realistic robots, like Sophia from Hanson Robotics who graced the cover of Brazilian Elle magazine.

The talks and exhibitors covered a wide range of topics, but there were three areas of technological development that are driving the ‘Rise of Robots’:

1. Mechanical – improvements to robotic skeletons and infrastructure that deliver human-like movement and gestures

2. Sensory – greater capacity for robots to take in more inputs, like cameras for detecting faces and movement, voice control and safety features like fire detection

3. Artificial Intelligence – the integration of AI within robotics to deliver autonomy and enable robots to not just act, but think in a human-like way.

New innovators were side-by-side at VivaTech, like SoftBank who produce the robots Nao and Pepper, and right next to them, Intuitive Robots, who develop applications for businesses to personalize and utilize those very robots.

David Hanson of Hanson Robotics has produced remarkable expressiveness, aesthetics and interactivity in robots. He not only showcased Sophia at VivaTech, a fascinating life-like robot, but also focused on the goal of achieving super-benevolent super intelligence – more simply known as the capability of learning from each other. David wants robots to understand what it means to be human, and in turn humans to appreciate that every interaction will have an impact on how robots develop and what they eventually become. Right now, Hanson robots are being used for medical testing with the US Center of Disease to improve respirator masks due to Sophia’s life-like skin, autism treatments and for educational purposes, like Hanson Robotics’ first commercial robot, Professor Einstein.

Beyond the functional rubbish bin robot (quite literally a moving bin), robots like Pepper (SoftBank) and Robothespian(Engineered Arts) gave a sparkle of life and created real engagement. Both were fully interactive, user friendly and thoroughly entertaining. But the big question is: what should they be used for? Showcasing exhibitors explained they generally work to a client’s brief when building functionality, which can include anything from singing performances to posing for selfies. At this stage, the main focus has been customer service (hence robotic kiosks), entertaining guests at events and creating buzz when users enter a showroom or retail space. Hease – who develop kiosk robots – found that this could also have positive business effects. For example, robotic kiosks in cinemas led to thirty times more interactions than with regular kiosks.

As robotic and AI capabilities continue to improve at a rapid rate, much of the conference discussion was around how humans and robots will develop together, with the likelihood being we’ll work alongside them rather than be replaced. The conference also sparked interesting debate on what code of ethics the machines will have, and whether we should apply robots with unpredictable AI, enabling them to make autonomous decisions and act on them. As David Hanson mentioned in reference to his robot projects, “they could be alive in 5, 10 or 15 years -or even this year? We just don’t know”.

Authors: Ricardo Amboage, Head of Display, Publicis Media Exchange UK