Everybody loves robots until they start punching people in the face

temi / WIRED

In May, Singapore’s Sengkang Community Hospital unveiled its first specialist Covid-19 ward. Unfortunately, there was a problem: as one of the biggest hospitals in the city with 400 beds, it needed to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission without spending huge sums on PPE or draining staff resources. So it turned to robots.
Since then, a fleet of six robots called Temi, costing $4,000 each, supports the healthcare team by facilitating patient consultations, counselling sessions and pharmacy appointments, saving valuable time and resources.

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The robots are akin to an Android tablet on wheels: voice-activated, Alexa-compatible assistants designed to follow you around the house or workplace. During the pandemic, Temi devices have been repurposed to help healthcare centres adapt to need challenges faced in healthcare industries. This includes administering temperature checks on patients and staff, dishing out hand sanitiser and facilitating Zoom appointments.
Earlier this year Temi secured $15 million worth of investment, bringing its total level of investment to $100m, and aim to branch out into Europe later this year (once the strict EU certification checks allow). It also sold over 10,000 units worldwide in a year, finding customers from the Thai government to the Israeli Ministry of Defense which, early on in the pandemic, ordered 50 units to help medical teams across the country.
It’s one of the robotics companies cashing in on a boom in demand during the pandemic. In 2019, the global robotics market was already valued at $34 billion. In India, where total Covid-19 cases are nearing three million, sales of autonomous robots are expected to rise 15 to 20-fold by the end of the fiscal year, while US company Brain Corp, whose software powers several types of autonomous cleaning robot, reported a sales increase of 24 per cent in April compared to last year.
Demand for robots isn’t only being driven by the upper echelons of global governments – even corner shops are getting in on the action. In the UK, the Co-Op recently expanded its robot delivery service after demand doubled and robot cleaners are being trialled in Leeds city centre.

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Adam Kushner, founder of robot supplier Robots of London, usually sells androids that can greet guests in hotel receptions or direct you through a used car showroom. During the pandemic, his collection of electronically superior humanoids have found a whole new importance. “One day, I received a call from a man who was very lonely during lockdown,” says Kushner. “We were able to build him a robot that had a chatbot and was fully AI-compatible. It became his companion.”
Kushner says enquiries doubled during the pandemic, as customers searched for new hobbies and exhausted parents desperately turned to smart robots who can help homeschool their children. “People are realising robots can be quite useful,” says Kushner. “They can educate, they can stimulate.”
But as companies like Temi expand into government buildings and healthcare facilities, they have sparked questions around privacy. Temi says that the data it collects “is secured to the highest levels,” but researchers have proven that it isn’t foolproof.
In August, cybersecurity company McAfee found a way to hack into the Temi system. The researchers found four vulnerabilities in the Temi system that allowed them to remotely intercept phone calls, activate the camera and microphone and drive the robot around a room. In some cases, this could be done with as little as a phone number.

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“After Covid happened we saw how these robots were being used in the healthcare industry. That influenced our motivations to work on this project,” says Douglas McKee, senior security researcher at McAfee. Before the findings were published, Temi was notified of all security flaws and quickly fixed them. It is not believed the flaws were ever exploited in the real-world.
“It might happen again,” says Yaron Yoels, head of North American operations at Temi. “There is no device you cannot hack into today and that’s how this world works. You just have to do your best to make the hackers’ lives as difficult as possible.” Still, Yoels thinks some of these findings were overblown and a way for McAfee to flex their guns. “It took McAfee three months to successfully hack our work. It’s not something a normal hacker could do. This has made our partners confident [in us].”
If left unfixed, these vulnerabilities could be exploited in the real world. The perils of having a robot spy on you as you log into a Zoom conference in your pants are obvious, but the same could be done in government buildings or hospitals. As most robots like Temi are portable, attackers could remotely map out secure buildings and expose confidential information.
And attacks do happen. Last year, a spokesperson from Japan’s Henn na Hotel, which is partly staffed by robots, apologised after instructions on how to break into an egg-like communication robot called Tapia were released online.
Tapia provides everything from weather forecasts to restaurant tips, and 100 of them sit on bedside tables throughout the hotel. However, the security breach allowed attackers to access Tapia’s camera and mic functions and record guests without their knowledge. After repeated warnings the bug was eventually fixed, but it is unclear how many devices were compromised.
Yaron believes the risks Temi poses are small, given its relative simplicity. “The more abilities you add for the robot to do harm then it can become more dangerous. If a robot had arms and hands, it could maybe pick up a knife or break a bunch of things.”
And if life-sized Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots sounds far fetched, think again. In 2017, a team from cybersecurity firm IOActive managed to break into Pepper, a popular social humanoid machine that can recognise faces and human emotion. Pepper also has arms which hackers were able to remotely access and control, turning any Pepper into a 1.2 metre tall Anthony Joshua that won’t stop punching until the battery goes flat.
Few reliable studies have been made into the effects of fighting robots on retirees, and besides, Pepper’s arms are too slow to inflict any considerable damage. Hacks on a grand scale are sparse too as many domestic or workplace robots are used in controlled areas, reducing potential risks.
But as governments search for more ways of stopping the spread of Covid-19 and businesses rush to respond, there risks are growing. “As we move more into a touchless society personal assistants and robots are going to become more important targets,” says McKee. “They become larger targets because they produce a larger impact, so as consumers we need to consider the security impact of the convenience we’re looking for. Is it worth it? Just because it can be internet connected, does it need to be?”
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