An Indian Start-Up Made A Robot Receptionist: Of Course She's A Woman
BENGALURU, Karnataka — Mitri, the receptionist at Smartworks, a co-working space in Cessna Business Park on Bengaluru’s Outer Ring Road, wears pink and white, greets people with a fixed smile and patiently answers questions about the facility.
She’s also being prepped to take over some janitorial work, vacuum floors and flit through the building at night as a security guard.
Mitra, her male counterpart, by contrast is in training to be deployed at a car-dealership.
Mitri and Mitra are both robots — identical in every way except for their “genders”, as telegraphed by their plastic outer shells.
The rise of the robots is already up-ending the workplace, yet somethings remain depressingly familiar—such as creating robots that conform to the same old stereotypes of ‘authoritative’ men and ‘helpful’ women. It is no coincidence that three of the biggest virtual assistants today—Siri, Alexa, and Cortana—also sound like women.
“Initially, the bot was gender neutral,” explained Balaji Viswanathan, the CEO of Invento Robotics, the Bengaluru company that manufactures Mitra and Mitri.
Viswanathan, a fixture of the Bengaluru startup scene, said Invento started about two and a half years ago with the idea to build a humanoid assistant, and came up with the design based on how it would interact with people.
This included a ‘head’ that would turn to look at people (with mounted cameras), a display on its torso that would be easy to reach and type on, and a wheeled base for easy movement. What it didn’t include were any gender-related features.
“When we first made it, we called it Mitra, and it was gender neutral. People asked us, ‘why did you make it male?’ You shouldn’t read too much into the whole gender thing, it’s just more successful with the customers, but it’s the same,” explained Viswanathan.
“It has the same functionality. The design, like Mitri has a more curved design, the original design had more straight lines. And the colours, and voice, these are the main changes. It’s about what our customer thinks their customer will be most comfortable with,” Viswanathan said.