New robots, old debates continued…

Say hello to social robots…

We recently wrote about the growing number of robots that have been developed to carry out household chores – from smartphone-controlled vacuum cleaners to automatons that sift through cat litter. But while these machines are designed to help us with our mundane domestic tasks, there is another emerging area of robotics that is attempting to deal with how robots actually interact with us and become integrated into human activity.

Social robotics is the general term for a range of technologies that are being used to enable robots to develop social intelligence, so they can collaborate on a deeper level with people and better negotiate complex social environments. Exponents believe that areas where this technology can have a real impact is in healthcare and the assistance of people who are housebound or socially isolated.

Robots have been used in healthcare for some time. For example, the well-known da Vinci Surgical System has been used by surgeons involved in invasive surgery for almost a decade. But robots that can walk, talk and learn potentially have a whole new range of applications.

Take the NAO robot, for instance. There is evidence that this pint-sized robot can help children with autism by simplifying communication. Because humans communicate in a range of ways – raising and lowering of voice, hand and eyebrow movements etc. – some children with autism struggle to interpret meaning from these complex gestures. NAO’s plain tone of voice, on the other hand, can be more easily understood.

Robot seals developed in Japan are also being used to sooth distressed dementia patients, as they have been programmed to react to petting and stroking with calming movements and noises.

This ability to interpret and react to human cues is key to the development of social robots and there is a lot of development in this area – Japanese firm Softbank, for example, has developed a robot, named Pepper, which it says uses an “emotional engine” and an artificial intelligence system to decipher gestures, expressions and voice tones, as well as learn what people like.

This short video shows how robots are being made more like us and how today they can realistically show empathy with humans. Scientists are exploring how these robots could help look after people with few chances of real social interaction.

And it’s not just in the home that robots can help isolated people. Researchers at a number of UK universities are involved in a project to see how robots can help housebound people take part in performances and events being held in public spaces.   The idea is that using remote controls people will be able to see through the robot’s eyes and speak through its mouth, as well as direct where it looks and moves.

Of course, we have to tread carefully when it comes to medical and social issues and ethical questions have been raised about the use robots in these areas. The potential loss of human contact, loss of privacy and the possible infantilisation of people who spend lots of time with robots are all concerns.

But the government is in no doubt that robotics are key area for the economy in the future and recently unveiled the UK’s first official robotics strategy. It has identified the so-called Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) sector as one of “Eight Great Technologies” that will rebalance the economy and create more jobs and growth. So, like social robots, it is something we are all likely to get more familiar with in years to come.

Government’s Technology Strategy Board – investment in robotics:




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