Unbiased Candidate Screening and AI interactions – Furhat Robotics
This interview was conducted with the CEO of Furhat Robotics, Samer Al Moubayed for the PaymentGenes Quarterly FinTech Magazine
Tell us about how Furhat Robotics came to exist.
Furhat was actually born from a research program at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. I was doing my PhD, and together with Jonas Beskow and Gabriel Skantze, we came up with the vision to take social robots outside the lab and into the real world. When we started, none of us had ever built robots or hardware. Most of my PhD was devoted to looking at how people talk with each other, how they use their feelings, how they express themselves with incredibly subtle movements and body language – and then building computational models of these human behaviors and examining how we can use these things to make machines better.
And that’s one aspect that makes Furhat so unique today. We draw inspiration from people, not technology. We are building a social robot which interacts in as human a way as possible, bringing back humanity to technology. You interact with the robot through speech and other non-verbal forms of communication, which removes the need for devices such as keyboards or touchscreens. The robot’s face is an animation, meaning that it can be changed to suit different scenarios. It can be male or female, young or old, a different gender, or perhaps even a cartoon character. The animation of the robot’s face allows it to express a broad range of emotions and gestures, enhancing the conversational experience. The result is a new type of computer interface that removes the barrier between man and machine, creating a much deeper emotional connection than you would get with other forms of technology.
But at first we didn’t have a company, it was just an exciting project, an idea from a hackathon on a Friday afternoon. The first robot prototype was built for an exhibit at the London Science Museum, and we rushed to get it done in time. There were wires sticking out everywhere from this talking head, so we covered them up with a fur hat a student had forgotten at the university…and that was that, Furhat was born.
We – Jonas Beskow, Gabriel Skantze, Preben Wik and I – founded Furhat Robotics when we started getting requests from companies to actually purchase this technology. Our first client was Disney Research. We knew that people wanted robots to be a reality.
What is your vision for the company and more specifically, the Furhat Robot?
We are transforming the way humans interact with technology, by reinstating the oldest user interface known to man: face to face communication. We are really more of a user experience company than a robot company. Our mission is to build robots that empower humanity.
If I describe a human as a “robot”, that means they are not social, not friendly, not kind
Even using the word robot can be tricky. If I describe a human as a “robot”, that means they are not social, not friendly, not kind. It’s used as the opposite of what it means to be a human. But what we are doing is the opposite, building a machine that is inspired by humans and is as human as possible.
Furhat is not just a robot. We are building the world’s first robot operating system called Furhat OS, and alongside this, we are developing a conversational platform that allows developers to design conversational experiences for Furhat. It’s a platform for innovation, where developers, designers, and creators of all kinds can build something new, transfer their knowledge and give society new tools. Furhat can be used in recruitment, in healthcare, as a language tutor or teaching assistant, for employee training, as a receptionist – the possibilities are endless.
In a similar way to how people develop applications for mobile phones today, the same method will be applied to social robots in the not-too-distant future. We envision that robots will become one of the main platforms and interfaces where a lot of innovation and application development will happen very soon. We really are a community-driven company: what Furhat does tomorrow will largely be driven by our customers.
As a recruitment firm, we are intrigued by the role that the Furhat Robot could play in the recruitment process. You claim that the robot can assist with unbiased recruitment – could you talk us through how that works and how easy it is to set up?
Unconscious bias is infused in pretty much everything we do, every decision we make as humans. When someone comes in for a job interview, you instantly start judging them – even without realizing it – based on their clothes, their hair, the small talk before the interview begins. Hiring decisions are often not rational and companies can lose out on the best candidates due to human bias and trivialities.
Last year, in August, we began an exciting new partnership with Swedish recruitment firm TNG. And in less than a year, the “unbiased interview robot” went from idea to reality. TNG has, with our help, created Tengai, a robot which helps reduce bias in the recruitment process. So Tengai is an application separate program or software which runs on the Furhat robot and the Furhat operating system, but it’s TNG who has created this application, this skill, of using Furhat in recruitment.
Tengai is designed to assist recruiters, and conducts interviews focused solely on competence. Tengai doesn’t care – and indeed doesn’t know – what your gender, ethnicity, clothing style, or native language is. The robot doesn’t engage in small talk, but it does give feedback when needed, like nodding or smiling, to encourage job candidates to elaborate. After the interview Tengai makes an objective transcript of the interview, and a human recruiter can then read the transcript and choose the next steps.
Are you aware of any recruitment firms that are already using the Furhat Robot in their process?
See above. Tengai has been developed in collaboration with TNG, and TNG has now begun selling Tengai as a service. Tengai’s first client was Upplands-Bro, a Swedish municipality, and Tengai conducted its first real job interview in mid-June.
What are the biggest challenges you face in making your product a large-scale success in the recruitment (or any other) industry?
One of the biggest challenges is just to get people to realize that this technology already exists – that social robots aren’t just the future, they’re already here. We still talk about robots in the future sense, about the impact that they will make on society, but they are already making a difference in many industries. Furhat is being used not just in recruitment but in healthcare, teaching, entertainment – even psychology.
What is the next step in the Furhat Robot’s lifecycle?
Furhat is growing very quickly, and we’ve doubled our team over the past six months. We’ve received major EU funding, and are increasing our development partnerships with very exciting companies around the world. In the meantime, we keep developing and perfecting our robots, both in terms of the hardware, the software, and the way they interact – leading the way in how social robot experiences should be designed Every day we are taking significant strides towards our vision: making technology more human.