The last two decades witnessed a mammoth increase in the number of robots being built across the world. However, the costs of body parts for the human-like machines deter the spirits of small innovators with big dreams. In 2017, more than 3000 industrial robots were installed in the country. Moreover, as of 2020, Asia remained the strongest market for industrial robots. India ranked third in the list with over 26,300 units, a 15 per cent increase from the previous year. On the other hand, humanoid robots have been gaining popularity in India for the last few years.
What Is A Humanoid Robot?
A humanoid robot is a machine representing the human body in shape. The design may be for functional purposes, such as interacting with human tools and environments, for experimental purposes, such as the study of bipedal locomotion, or for other purposes. Humanoids have a torso, a head, two arms and two legs. On the other hand, some humanoids might represent just a particular body part, for instance from waist-up. Some humanoid robots also have heads designed to replicate human facial features such as eyes and mouths.
A Hong-Kong based company named Hanson Robotics came up with the idea of Sophia, which was activated in 2016. Sophia was a social humanoid robot that participated in several high-profile interviews. Inspired by the engineering in Sophia, Dinesh Patel, a Computer Science teacher was inspired to begin work on his dream project, that of building a low-cost and World's First Artificially Intelligent Homemade Social & Educational Humanoid Robot made up of waste materials. While speaking to The Logical Indian, about the development of Robot Shalu from the scratch, Patel shares that it seemed like a huge mountain to conquer initially, but with grit and passion, nothing is too big to achieve.
The Inception Of The Project
While speaking about how he began work on Robot Shalu, Patel shared, "In the beginning, I was inspired by the movie 'Robot' by the much-loved actor Rajnikanth, I was inspired to make something like that. However, in 2010, the possibility of being able to make something like this seemed bleak. I came home after the movie thinking that this was not possible. Then, the world-famous, Sophia robot was developed and I understood that the dream was not impossible to achieve. That robot is developed by a big company with the latest technology and several hands behind the project, but then it occurred to me that maybe we could do something similar on a much smaller scale. I am a teacher of Computer Science and I wanted to motivate my students towards technology and AI".
Patel understood coding well, and hence, creating the required software for the humanoid was well within his technological prowess. However, assembling the physical body parts for the robot still seemed like a milestone to conquer. He conquered several companies to acquire 3D printed body parts for his project. However, the cost pegged by the companies was touching as much as Rs 25 lakhs. Therefore, he decided that perhaps using garbage for the project could be a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly option. He would collect waste from local shops, and pick up anything and everything that he thought could be useful. He purchased aluminium and thermocol amongst other small electronic components. For the face, Patel settled with plaster of paris.
Functions Performed By Shalu
While explaining the functions of Robot Shalu, Dinesh explained to The Logical Indian, "You have to connect it to a plug for power supply and connect it with the internet for the Robot to start. She can perform identify you even after meeting you for the first time, can remember your date of birth and would wish you on your birthday. She can make calls, or write emails. Apart from that, she can identify common objects at home; she can also understand human humour. She understands when and if you are trying to joke around her and can reply in the same manner. She can provide you with weather reports of several geographical locations and can solve basic mathematical problems. These are just a few of the many functions she can perform".
While answering about why he chose to give a female body to the robot, Patel told The Logical Indian, "I am not blessed with a girl child, and I always wished for one. I decided to make a girl who could identify as India's daughter. I was born and raised in a village in north India and I had always seen women in the family with a veil on their heads to pay respect to the elders, hence the veil on Shalu, my robot's head. Secondly, I have dedicated this robot to India's daughters and it was extensively used in the 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' campaign. I wanted to pass a message that people should not get confused seeing women and think any less of them because this robot is intellectually adept with several skills. Even though Robot Shalu looks simple, she can speak in 47 languages, has knowledge on many topics".
The Challenges Faced
While explaining the many challenges he faced, Patel shared that Robot Shalu greets humans with a handshake currently. However, his initial desire was to enable her to fold her hands in the form of a 'namaste', however, he could not achieve that since the electronic parts used were all from the local market. The next challenge was enabling the robot to sync her lips in the correct manner. However, since plaster of pairs was a heavy substance, it was not easy to enable the robot to do so. While he still aims to improve the lip-sync function of the humanoid, he has made peace with the bare minimum for now.
Patel's wife was the first person with whom he shared the idea of building the humanoid. She supported him from the beginning and her belief in the project strengthened when he presented the basic machine that could respond when she was spoken to. His parents and other relatives were starstruck after seeing his dream project taking shape. However, Patel recalled with enthusiasm, "The best reaction I received was from my students. I cannot put into words what I felt when I explained the project to them and showed them the same".
A Message For All
With Robot Shalu, Patel wanted to put forward the message that a common man in India is technologically adept. "Even though money and manpower are important, it is not the be-all and all of everything. Anyone can do anything they want, all that you need to achieve something is passion and determination", he tells The Logical Indian before signing off.
Robot Shalu has been awarded as the "Most Innovative use of Science and Technology" for the year 2021 by the Jagranjosh Education awards by the Education Minister of India, Dr. Ramesh Pokharial 'Nishank'. Patel has made a place for himself in the India Book of Records and The Pratishtha World Records for his work.