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Meet Sanbot, the Watson-Powered Droid, Here to Serve

If you're like many Americans, chances are you've never encountered a Sanbot robot, but there are already more than 60,000 of the diminutive humanoid servants in restaurants, hospitals, shopping malls, and schools across China. Now they're about to invade the US.

Sanbot's maker, the Shenzen-based Qihan Technology Company, is currently in talks with several US companies who are interested in purchasing the robot. It won't say which ones just yet, but based on the trails that other humanoid service robots like Pepper have blazed, you can expect Sanbot to show up in places such as shopping malls and airports. Don't plan on buying one yourself any time soon, though: Qihan doesn't sell robots directly to consumers, not even in China.

Qihan brought Sanbot to San Francisco this week to show off its capabilities. Sorry, her capabilities—like Pepper, this bot is a female. The first thing you notice about Sanbot, which sells for about $10,000, is her impeccable pedigree of components. Sony manufactured the forward-sensing cameras, Sharp supplied the large touchscreen that adorns her torso, IBM Watson powers her artificial intelligence capabilities, and Nuance provides the voice recognition.

Sanbot Robot Torso

The result is a robot remarkably attuned to her surroundings. Put her in patrol mode, for instance, and she'll record audio and high-definition video while she roams the halls of your restaurant overnight, courtesy of her small wheels. Sanbot's battery allows her to move and interact with humans for up to four hours; if she's in standby mode, she can last for up to 10 hours without a recharge.

A projector built into the back of her head allows her to display impromptu PowerPoint presentations and videos, among other multimedia, which are beamed to her via an Android smartphone app. In fact, the entire Sanbot ecosystem, including her onboard tablet, is Android-powered, and customers can take advantage of Sanbot's APIs and SDKs to customize her functions.

Options for connecting Sanbot to her smartphone app include Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. She also supports the ZigBee home automation protocol, which means that she could one day wind up in private residences, although Qihan Vice President Lennic Qian reiterated the company's B2B business model and explained that it would be up to third-party home automation companies to bring Sanbot into people's houses.

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Like Pepper, who can tell jokes and play Cards Against Humanity, Sanbot also likes to have some fun. She's got a dance mode and has been programmed with some sarcastic but playful quips, courtesy of IBM Watson.

One of her only shortcomings, then, is that she's very short—about three feet. Qian explained that her diminutive stature is to reinforce the notion that she's there to serve humans, but he said that Qihan is already working on a taller version with a height of just under five feet.

Oh, and to ensure that Sanbot's next version is ready to party, Qihan has turned to yet another western company: she'll come stuffed with Harmon Kardon speakers.

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