This friendly neighbourhood (Indian) bot may soon assist you in offices, banks

Anand Murali January 25, 2017 4 min

Most of us have seen humanoid robots in the movies and on TV shows, but have you ever walked into a hotel lobby or your local bank branch and had one of these bots come forward to assist you?

This may soon be a reality, thanks to a bunch of startups trying to build and deploy such robots in India. One such team of makers from Bengaluru has developed a humanoid robot called Mitra.

In the first phase, Invento Tech wants Mitra to provide intelligent assistance to humans by interacting with them in office receptions and boardrooms  

The startup, Invento Tech, will begin piloting Mitra from March 2017 at a group of hotels and technology companies across India. If the pilots are successful, the company, which is bootstrapped at the moment, plans to roll out commercial versions of Mitra by the end of the year.

“We had received feedback on our first build by October 2016 and we started implementing the required changes and made new additions for the next build before starting the pilots,” says Balaji Viswanathan, CEO and co-founder of the startup.

Making Mitra

Viswanathan formed Invento Tech in July 2016 after he returned to India from the US, where he worked at a Boston-based open source security and management startup called Black Duck; he was a product manager for innovation. “While I was in Boston, my latent interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics was renewed. I started visiting makerspaces there and this got me interested in building a company focused on AI and robotics in India,” says Viswanathan.

Viswanathan put together a team of nine and started working on his dream projects. One of their first projects involved modifying a Honda Activa to convert it into a semi-autonomous vehicle.

mitra_inside_1
Invento Tech CEO and co-founder Balaji Viswanathan (third from right) along with his team that developed Mitra

Soon after that, the team set out to build the first version of Mitra and started demoing it at maker events across the country. Invento Tech also operates a makerspace under the same name in Bengaluru.

In the first stage of deployment, the company wants the robot to provide intelligent assistance to humans by interacting with them at office receptions and corporate boardrooms, which are the first point of interaction in various business contexts.

The bot and you

To be able to interact effectively with humans, Mitra has been armed with offline speech and face recognition technology. With built-in language support, it can answer a variety of questions. “The robot can identify a person by verifying his/her features in its database to check whether it has previously interacted with the person or not,” says Viswanathan. Mitra’s arms are capable of interactive gestures.

Even though the robot can communicate in natural languages, its conversational capabilities aren’t open-ended. They will be contextual, depending on where it is being deployed and the type of interaction it is required to have with humans in that context.

“The robot can identify a person by verifying his/her features in its database to check whether it has previously interacted with the person or not” — Balaji Viswanathan, CEO and co-founder, Invento Tech  

“Mitra will not be capable of completely open speech, but will have a contextual vocabulary. It will be able to form sentences based on preset grammar rules,” says Viswanathan. According to him, the limited vocabulary and grammar rules will help ensure accuracy of Mitra’s vocal responses.

Even virtual assistants from the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft have their limitations and can not have completely open-ended conversations.

Humanoid robots in India

This is not the first humanoid robot in India to be built for human assistance and interaction. In the past, some banks and other institutions have experimented with robots, but in most of these cases, the robots used were ones that could be bought pre-built off the shelf and customised depending on the use case. Nao by Softbank Robotics is one such bot that has been used for such deployments. Bengaluru’s Kempegowda International Airport was testing a Nao humanoid robot to help with passenger assistance.

One of the reasons companies buy off-the-shelf or imported humanoid robots is that very few people are developing them in India, because of the high costs and long R&D involved  

One of the main reasons companies tend to rely on off-the-shelf or imported humanoid robots is that very few people are developing them in India, especially because of the high costs and long-term R&D that goes into such developments.

However, there have been some attempts to deploy indigenous humanoid robots. Since 2008, the Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems at BITS-Pilani has been developing a series of humanoids called AcYut.

Earlier this month, HDFC Bank, the second-largest private bank in India, announced its plan to deploy a robot called Ira, which was developed in partnership with Kochi-based startup Asimov Robotics. In late 2016, City Union Bank had also launched a robot called Lakshmi, which looked similar to Nao, to assist customers.


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