Robots

As you know, I am fascinated by robots and the way that humans and robots interact. It is not just the focus on creating robots that can interact with humans it is also about us, as people, learning how to interact with robots. What are the emotions that you feel when you think about interacting with a robot or android?

At New Scientist Live last week there were several robots on display each with a different functionality and role to play when interacting with humans.

The first robot I encountered was DE NIRO, a robot designed and built at Imperial College London. DE NIRO is a Design Engineer’s Interactive Robot developed at the Robot Intelligence Lab. Here is a short video about DE NIRO. DE NIRO is charming and non-threatening as robots go and I loved watching him at work moving pieces around.

The second stand I visited had a NAO robot and a Pepper robot. Now I am fascinated by emotional robots and how they engage with me and the emotions they engender in me. Both of these robots appear gentle, and I was comfortable around both. Pepper responds to touch, visual and verbal cues. If you stroked Pepper’s head the robot giggled and there were also touch sensors on the arms. If you asked Pepper some pre-selected questions, then Pepper would reply (although struggled to do so if there was too much background noise). Pepper used visual cues and after looking at you for a short time would respond by telling you your age, gender and mood.

Although Pepper often got the exact age incorrect, this was not the point of the exercise. The robot is designed to be able to distinguish between different age groups so that the robot could respond appropriately according to whether it was speaking with a child or an older person. And at this more general level Pepper was accurate.

There is so much opportunity for robots to be interacting with us at all ages. Some robots help out in schools, we might come across them in restaurants, hotels, airports, bars and care homes.

I was thrilled that Dr Minoru Asada who is a pioneer of cognitive development robotics from Osaka University gave a short talk on Android Science and RoboCup at the event. This is the area of robotics that fascinates me. So RoboCup is a project that aims to create a team of robot football (soccer) players who could beat humans at football (soccer) by 2050! And that is just a mind boggling thought. If you want to see how far they are along that journey, then check out RoboCup 2016 which was held in Leipzig in Germany.

One robot that was unlikely to be used for much human interaction was Bridget. Bridget is the European Space Agency working prototype of the ExoMars rover due to visit Mars in 2020. Here is a robot built for a specific task and for a particular environment – that of the Red Planet. It is quite wonderful and awe inspiring to imagine these robots travelling through space and landing on an alien planet to begin exploration and to send data back to us here on earth.

Finally, I went to see Makr Shakr a company launched in 2014 that focuses on bringing robotics to the food and beverage sector. On show was the robotic bar system which created and shook cocktail drinks. It was hypnotic and a little odd at the same time to watch the robotic arm whizz backwards and forwards across the bar, to fetch ice or reach up to collect a measure of alcohol.

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