Blackout Technologies are developing robot software that uses artificial intelligence. The company is the first in Europe to market truly intelligent personalities for robots – which answer to evocative names such as ‘Pepper’ and ‘Luna’. Demand is extremely high and the programming team, based in Bremen’s World Trade Center, is growing quickly.
She is waist-high, with big black eyes, a winning smile and a soothing female voice – this is Luna, and it’s her job to greet visitors to the Neustadt branch of the Sparkasse Bremen savings bank. Luna is a robot, and she has been performing this task since October 2018. She welcomes customers, answers simple questions, and even engages in small talk about Werder Bremen football club. “That makes work easier for the advisers – now they are able to concentrate fully on their consultations,” explains Marc Fiedler, robot engineer and creator of Luna, with pride.
Fiedler founded Blackout Technologies with his colleague Lisa Fischer at the start of 2017. The Sparkasse customers are delighted, and Luna has become part of the team. The robotics experts from Bremen first came to the Sparkasse’s attention when they won the Gründerpreis Bremen, an award for start-ups, in 2018.
“Luna is able to recognise people and converse with them. She can even gauge their age, gender and state of mind and adjust her response accordingly. She really does have her own personality,” explains Fiedler. Blackout is paving the way in social robotics – robots that interact with humans and help them in the office or in day-to-day life.
It’s still a relatively new field, and very few companies in the west are working on social robotics. It’s more prevalent in Japan, where over 10,000 Pepper robots have already been sold. This is the robot on which Luna at the Sparkasse is based. “The Japanese are mad for her,” says Fiedler. The body, electronics and control mechanism are manufactured by French firm Softbank Robotics.
What makes Bremen’s Pepper, Luna and their fellow robots from the Blackout workshop so special is the software – it is their heart and soul. “Without intelligent software, a robot is just a machine,” explains the 33-year-old. The Bremen-based innovators have combined the robot bodies with artificial intelligence (AI) databases, such as IBM’s Watson and Microsoft’s Azure. Thanks to the computing power of these cloud networks and the clever algorithms behind the AI databases, Bremen-born Luna can process spoken questions, compute their meaning and formulate appropriate responses. That’s something most of their Asian counterparts struggle with.
“Giving personalities to the robots that we encounter in everyday life, enabling them to communicate with us and to develop, that sort of thing is truly remarkable. We are very proud that our vision has been so well received, and that more and more people approach us asking for the same thing for their companies,” says Fischer. Including its two founders, the company now consists of ten people.
Despite its relative infancy, the Blackout team has been able to attract notable clients from across Europe on the strength of its software. For example, their robots have been used at trade fairs to give directions, welcome delegates or simply as a talking point.
“The surprise element is a big factor – people are intrigued and they enjoy interacting with Pepper and our other robot and chatbot personalities. They can be put to work anywhere where communication is needed,” adds Fiedler. The robots cannot hold anything. Their arms serve simply to make them look more ‘human’, but there are still lots of roles they can fulfil: sales assistant, bank adviser, guide, and much more besides.
Pepper has also been trialled as a carer. As part of a project conducted with the Demenz centre for dementia in Schleswig-Holstein and IBM in Hamburg, Pepper is being prepared for work with dementia patients, including making sure they take their medicine at the right times. The Blackout developers adapt the software for each and every customer. “Every Pepper is different – and so sometimes she develops her own eccentricities,” says Fiedler, smiling.
Since the company was founded, they have also become involved in the field of chatbots and voice assistants. Rather than being linked to robots, Blackout’s artificial intelligence can also be used independently, for example on websites or in intelligent devices, such as Amazon’s Echo speaker. The pharmaceutical company Bayer uses the system in its HR department and for its communication with applicants.
“We’ve also developed the btNexus platform, which makes it possible to set up a digital assistant without any programming knowledge,” explains Lisa Fischer, the team’s COO. Once again, the firm’s application of AI technology in this area is groundbreaking within the sector, and Blackout is very much at the cutting edge.
The young entrepreneurs have based their business at the World Trade Center Bremen. The technology centre is the ideal location for them. “Being based at Bremen Airport-City, we are within easy reach of potential clients,” explains Fischer. “And there are other start-ups here, also developing really promising technologies.” Thanks to the early success of Luna and Pepper, the start-up has so far managed without outside financing. “And we want to keep it that way,” adds Fiedler. “We want to maintain our independence and our strength, because the market is growing so rapidly.” They want to expand quickly and attract new staff. That would take them a step closer to their ultimate goal: “One day, we want to build our own robot and herald a new era in social robotics!”
They also keep in close touch with other AI companies in Bremen. The new Bremen.AI network brings together robotics experts to share information with like-minded people from business and academia, such as JUST ADD AI. “Apart from providing contacts, the network is also important for raising awareness among the people of Bremen,” says Lisa Fischer. “We aim to contribute to reducing reservations about artificial intelligence, and to breaking down barriers.” Fears that people might be about to lose their jobs to AI robots are unfounded, she adds. “Social robots won’t be replacing people anytime soon. The technology isn’t that sophisticated yet. Instead, they lighten the load for people working in sales, on help desks or in patient care, giving them more time to focus on their most important tasks,” Fischer explains.
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