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Social Robots Are Now: Samer Al Moubayed

Introducing Furhat, a social robot that can communicate with humans by speaking, making eye contact, showing emotions — and, if needed, transforming into a dog.
Samer Al Moubayed | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion
By
  • Rachel Strugatz

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — "Hello world. My name is Furhat and I'm a social robot," said Furhat, a (faux) fur hat clad mannequin head with an animated face, on the stage of VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers hosted in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate. "I can't wait to see all the ways you'll use me in society."

In a time when fashion and beauty brands are scrambling to develop their own artificial intelligence experiences, Furhat, created by Samer Al Moubayed, co-founder and chief executive of Furhat Robotics, is the latest contender for the most sophisticated version of the technology.

Unlike Facebook's display-ad product recommendations or Amazon's Alexa smart speaker, Furhat communicates by speaking, listening, making eye contact and showing emotions by moving its eyebrows, smiling or even furrowing its eyebrows (to look angry). The robot's "face" is a removable mask that can be programmed to look or sound like anything.

Furhat can teach 40 languages, screen for a medical condition or help someone find their way in an airport. In stores, Furhat could talk to customers about what sort of products they want to buy and offer suggestions.

What makes a social robot special is that it's in our own image.

“There was a diversity problem in robots. We realized you’re building a piece of hardware that looks exactly the same for whoever is using it,” Moubayed said. “You can’t change it’s age, gender or ethnicity, and we think that’s a huge barrier for people to start to explore.”

He spent years trying to address this and in the end decided on a robot that has customizable faces and genders as well as additional swappable “masks” that’s each have their own “robot persona.”  On stage, he switched Furhat from a man's appearance to a woman's, and then a dog.

“Humans seem to be really interested in  building a robot that looks like us — and we haven’t really thought about why that’s the case,” said Moubayed. “One way is to look at it as a new user interface. What makes a social robot special is that it’s in our own image. We spend most of our life looking at other people’s faces. Our face tells us a huge story.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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