Hi, Robot: how the future of robotics means making friends with machines

8 Jan 2009

Intelligent machines are more about shaking hands than simply doing sums.

When we look at the history of robotics, there has always been a dichotomy between hard-working industry machines – little more than robotic arms – that toiled away ceaselessly, spray-painting cars or filling jars with food on an assembly line, while in the make-believe world of science fiction, characters such as R2D2 and Johnny 5 entertained kids and went on great adventures.

Lively little robots with free will and personalities of their own may seem a bit far-fetched, but the core idea of intelligent machines that have the ability to interact with human beings is one of the driving forces of modern robotics.

Though most industries will be perfectly happy to stick with the robotic arm, our metallic friends hold the potential for innovation in modern science and healthcare. Large companies such as Toyota have been researching such fields for years.

However, what sets these robots apart from their predecessors is technology that will help them not just to think, see and process information like a human, but also to socialise like one too.

Robot designer Cynthia Breazeal, who spoke about this subject recently during Science Week Ireland, says robots can have a broad range of human embodiments.

The affectionate, albeit fictional, robots of the silver screen, such as C-3P0 of Star Warsfame, always beg the questions: will robots ever reach the emotional complexity of human beings, and will they ever be our friends?

While psychologists tackle the meaning of consciousness and what it is to be human, in a parallel and connected field scientists are also looking at the human and social side of robots, and how near we are coming to replicating human-like responses, all while learning something about ourselves along the way.

Many people find it easy to project human qualities and characteristics on the technology they interact with, says Breazeal: “Take the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Some people name these robots and like to think of them as little mice running around because humans are primarily social and have a whole way of thinking about the living world in relation to themselves.”

Some people even draw faces on their Roomba or make little tea-cosy-like outfits for them, but this is reactive rather than interactive behaviour, says Breazeal. Her line of work lies in designing robots we can relate to, and, in turn, that can relate to us.

Back in 1999, while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Breazeal developed Kismet. This was a humanoid robot comprising a head with motors, cameras, sensors and software that allowed it to interpret speech patterns and eye movement and then react with emotions such as interest, anger, surprise or disgust.

Kismet was the beginning of a journey for Breazeal – she says the ultimate goal for robotics is to improve the human condition.

“If you look at the field of robotics, it is incredibly diverse: some people design robots that perform autonomously and others look at robots in the context of humans. In designing robots that anyone can interact with, you create a whole new set of questions.

“There are parallels with computers. In the early days, there existed massive models that few people could operate and use, but the PC was accessible to anyone.

“How do you build machines that anyone can interact with?” Breazeal asks.

She says that in order to do this, there are various fields of complicated sciences to consider. Just take a look at how we interact with each other every day. We have to understand and react to eye contact, gestures, body language, tone and inflection of voice, and so on.

To play out a successful human-robot social interaction, all of this has to be taken into account. This means neuroscience, psychology and physiology must all be factored in when designing a robot friend.

Aside from an increasing global population of senior citizens who can benefit from home assistance and companionship, research has also shown that children with autism can often reach out to robots with human characteristics when ordinary social interactions have proved too difficult or beyond their reach.

“From a scientific standpoint, a significant goal of advancing robotics is what we learn about ourselves, and, on the other side, can we design robots that are more capable than people, or human-centric ones that have compatibility with everyone?

“In Japan, qualities such as gentleness and respectfulness are very important, and these also apply to designing robots that people will be willing to accept,” explains Breazeal.

“The nuance is not trying to build robots that are identical to people, because while you would like the robot to be as flexible and capable as a person, you would like it to be, above all else, compatible.”

By Marie Boran

Pictured clockwise from right: Honda’s Asimo robot, the Roomba and Cynthia Breazael’s humanoid robot, Kismet