10 December 2012

Robots: man's best friend?

Robotic Companions: Best friends forever?

Humans are a social species. Over millions of years they evolved to socially interact with each other, displaying and understanding a wide range of social cues. This has served us well as a species, but people are so good at interpreting social cues that they keep doing this … even with machines! 

In this discussion Prof Tony Belpaeme and Dr Tim Auburn will consider questions such as: Should we allow people to bond with robots? What about children, or adults with dementia, who may not realise the limitations of the machine? Can robots substitute for human social interaction?

Tony Belpaeme is Professor of Cognitive Systems and Robotics and leader of the EU ALIZ-E project. Tim Auburn is an Associate Professor with special interest in discursive psychology and social interaction.

If you see the above announcement, would you not go? It’s a very interesting topic! I sure put that date in my diary. And not only because I know Tony is a very friendly chap. I wouldn’t be 

I had time for a glass of mulled wine with him before it all started. Then I found myself a seat. The talk by Tim Auburn was very interesting; he showed us how much information there is in the most basic of human interactions. And he finished by wondering if computers would be able to pick up all that information anywhere soon. Then the floor was Tony’s. 

Tony ran us through the history of robotics. And he spoke of how we humans tend to project all sorts of human traits on inanimate objects; as an example he mentioned minesweeping robots, which the troops tend to give a name, and which they want repaired when it breaks, so they can have the exact same back. He also spoke of how we do more of that when robots look more like humans, but that that trend stops when the robots become so human-like it becomes scary. Even though it is probably possible to make robots so much like us it’s not uncanny anymore; the first ones to nail it will probably be the Japanese. They already have Hiroshi Ishiguro with his robotic twin, and they won’t stop there. 

He then went on to situations where pets do social work. They feature, for instance, in hospitals, and homes for the elderly. But there isn’t always the money or the possibility to employ pets; they need lots of care, and they are far from sterile. Is that where robots come in then? 

There are already social robots for in such environments. Fluffy seal puppy robots to lift the spirits of Alzheimer patients. Talking robots that can hang around on hospital wards with quarantined children. And he said it is amazing how well it works already, but that there is still so much room for improvement. 

When the chair opened the floor for questions the little hand of a small girl on the front row shot up: she said she wanted a robot companion as she didn’t have any brothers or sisters…

One of the other questions from the audience was, of course, whether the panel thought a world where we give our suffering elderly citizens inanimate companions is a good one. It answered with a question back: is a world where we have homes for the elderly a good place?

Another question regarded the moral framework of a robot. And another question dealt with human-machine interaction; isn’t it very boring if a machine is programmed to please? Would you not get fed up with it? And if you don’t, would it inspire you to expect similar behaviour from your fellow creatures? There are many issues involved. 

Tony answered that if research turns out people want a bit of unpredictability in their (robotic) companions, that can be easily be programmed in. Though they would have to get the dose right; if your robot is too temperamental you would just take the batteries out. And society changes with every new development; that’s just how life works. And I think that’s true. One can’t stop progress. One can try to make the best of it. 

After the discussion I seized the opportunity to socialise a bit with a robot myself; they had one that supposedly could catch a ball. In practice it found it hard to grasp it even if it was handed that ball, but well, one has to start somewhere. It was interesting to see that as long as it didn’t move it was just a thing, but as soon as its camera-eyes caught a glimpse of the ball, followed it with their gaze, and its arms started to reach for it with very theatrical gestures, it immediately felt very human.
I think robots are on the up. I’d like one to do my hoovering. And whether they do things well or very badly, it’s an interesting field of science to keep an eye on. And this one, by exception, makes you see how sophisticated we humans actually are…

ps Nice link with robot pics - including the seal puppy - here!


Petra said...

Hoi Margot,

Leuk dat je in mijn oude vakgebied bent gedoken. Het blijft interessante materie!
Mocht je er meer van willen weten (naast datgene wat Tony je erover kan vertellen): http://robotsthatcare.com/author/admin/?lang=nl
De pagina is van een vakgenoot annex vader van een vriendje van Abe.



Margot said...

Daar zit diezelfde rode-bal-grijpende robot weer in! Ze hebben natuurlijk wel een opname gebruikt waarin het hem ook lukt...