Hot seat: Dr Nikolaos Mavridis

As the first Arabic-speaking robot is unleashed on the world, we talk to Dr Nikolaos Mavridis of the United Arab Emirates University

Interview, Hot seat, The brief, The Knowledge

How did you get involved in building the world’s first Arabic-speaking android?
I’m the founder and director of the Interactive Robots and Media Laboratory of the United Arab Emirates University. My speciality is interactive robots with language and vision capabilities, which is what I studied for my PhD. The focus of my work was getting robots to understand the meaning of words and connect that to what they are seeing and doing. It’s always been my dream to build an android that would either be based on a fictional character or have resemblance to an historical figure. Being Greek, an obvious choice would be somebody like Aristotle; so Ibn Sina, a worthy figure among the ancient sages, who was also close to the hearts and minds of my students, was a good choice here.

Why Ibn Sina? Who was he?
He was born in what is today Uzbekistan, in Bukhara. I think he was an enlightened person comparable to someone like Leonardo Da Vinci. He was a philosopher, a scientist and a doctor and is still very well known across the Middle East and Europe by his Latinised name, Avicenna. Even 200 years after his death, many of his medical books are still referred to in universities.

It’s been proposed that Ibn Sina could be mass produced and put into public places. What sort of uses do you see for the robot?
There are two clear applications. One is as a receptionist and the other is as a shopping mall robot that can talk to you about particular products and make suggestions.

What kind of local response do you expect if these were brought into society?
We conducted an experiment in a mall in Al Ain to explore that. During our summer school here at the university, we devised a questionnaire to assess the perceptions of people in the region about this. For the first such study in the Middle East, we asked if people would like to see robots used in hospitals, education and so on. We continued the same experiment at Gitex with many more people and a more IT-focused strata of people. We’re waiting to pull all the data together and analyse the response.

What’s this we hear about Ibn Sina being on Facebook?
It’s not Ibn Sina – this is another robot called Facebot. We’re trying to get the modules that we have developed for this other robot to be reuseable in Ibn Sina. The idea is that if we can integrate Facebot with Ibn Sina, the robot will remember previous interactions and know its friends. It can also get information from Facebook and base its dialogue on your previous short interactions, online and offline.

Why do you think this robot is important right now?
First, this is the world’s first android capable of dialogue in Arabic. Second, when it comes to our students, Arabic is the dominant language and they feel it’s a beautiful language. Also, through Ibn Sina, our students not only get involved with real-world robotics projects and artificial intelligence, but they remember what Ibn Sina stands for: philosophy, science and medicine for the benefit of humanity. These are exactly the values we want our students in the UAE to have.
For more information on the Ibn Sina robot, see irml.uaeu.ac.ae.

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