Aye Ro­bot ... how Scot­land is cre­at­ing the world’s most so­cially aware droid as­sis­tant

Sunday Herald - - NEWS - BY KARIN GOODWIN

LOST in a shop­ping cen­tre? Un­sure of your train plat­form? Want a pic­ture in an art gallery ex­plained? The in­for­ma­tion may soon be pro­vided by ro­bots, de­vel­oped in Scot­land, which not only give you the facts but sec­ond-guess that you need help by read­ing your body lan­guage and sub­tle so­cial cues that be­tray what you are re­ally think­ing.

Sounds far-fetched? Not ac­cord­ing to a team of ro­botic ex­perts from Glas­gow Univer­sity work­ing to cre­ate the world’s most “so­cially aware” ro­bot. Us­ing ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy they are cre­at­ing a ma­chine that can “spon­ta­neously in­ter­act” with strangers in public spa­ces such as shop­ping cen­tres, air­ports, sta­tions and mu­se­ums.

By adapt­ing the diminu­tive, £24,000 Pep­per ro­bot – first mar­keted in Ja­pan and now in the US as an “en­dear­ing com­pan­ion” – Scot­tish com­puter sci­en­tists aim to take the tech­nol­ogy to a new level by pro­gram­ming it to in­ter­act em­pa­thet­i­cally with passers-by.

The main goal of the four-year-long MuMMER (Mul­tiMo­dal Mall En­ter­tain­ment Ro­bot) project – which also in­volves Pep­per cre­ator SoftBank Ro­bot­ics, re­searchers from He­riot-Watt Univer­sity and the Idiap Re­search In­sti­tute in Switzer­land – is a so­cially in­tel­li­gent ro­bot that will be tested in Fin­land’s Idea­park shop­ping cen­tre.

This “en­ter­tain­ing and en­gag­ing ro­bot” will help lost or con­fused shop­pers and give out in­for­ma­tion on deals or dis­count vouch­ers.

The team claims the ro­bot will have a wide range of other ap­pli­ca­tions in public spa­ces and could even be used in hos­pi­tals and other health­care set­tings to pro­vide ev­ery­thing from en­ter­tain­ment in wait­ing rooms to triage ser­vices.

Dr Mary Ellen Fos­ter, Glas­gow Univer­sity lec­turer and co-or­di­na­tor of the MuMMER project, said: “Pep­per is a ro­bot that is al­ready go­ing into public spa­ces and at­tract­ing a lot of at­ten­tion, but its traits are not very in­ter­ac­tive. What it does is scripted. It’s op­er­at­ing more like a touch screen.

“We are work­ing on a ro­bot that is able to have a con­ver­sa­tion and make judg­ments about who it can ap­proach and what sort of ap­proach it should make. In Glas­gow, we are look­ing at so­cial sig­nal pro­cess­ing and how the ro­bot can un­der­stand those sig­nals.

“For ex­am­ple, how can a ro­bot tell if we want to talk or if we might be scared or avoid­ing it? The ro­bot could re­spond by be­ing more po­lite, by try­ing to be more en­gag­ing and en­ter­tain­ing, or more calm.”

Al­ready Pep­per, which stands at just un­der five feet tall, can recog­nise the hu­man voice in 20 lan­guages and de­tect if an adult or child is talk­ing. Ear­lier this year, the ro­bot was en­rolled in classes at Shoshi High School in Waseda, in Fukushima, Ja­pan – mak- ing it the first ro­bot to “study” along­side hu­man stu­dents, demon­strat­ing its abil­ity to learn. The en­hanced Pep­pers will be tested in the lab as well as the univer­sity’s public spa­ces, in­clud­ing the Hun­te­rian Mu­seum and Art Gallery, be­fore go­ing to Fin­land and other part­ner coun­tries for cross-cul­tural com­par­isons. Team mem­ber Pro­fes­sor Alessan­dro Vin­cia­relli, also from Glas­gow Univer­sity, said a key chal­lenge was cre­at­ing ro­bots with the tech­ni­cal ca­pa­bil­ity to read hu­man emo­tions in noisy and crowded public spa­ces such as shop­ping malls. Cre­at­ing sen­sors, mi­cro­phones and cam­eras ca­pa­ble of pick­ing up non-ver­bal sig­nals is one of the is­sues that the project will grap­ple with. “We are look­ing at creat- ing a so­cially in­tel­li­gent ma­chine that can un­der­stand very sub­tle signs,” he said. Re­cent work in the devel­op­ment of ro­bots has in­cluded cre­at­ing ma­chines ca­pa­ble of work­ing with autis­tic chil­dren as well as com­pan­ions, such as Paro, an in­ter­ac­tive furry seal ro­bot de­vel­oped in Ja­pan, which aims to repli­cate pet ther­apy.

So far, all ap­pli­ca­tions have been ex­per­i­men­tal though Vin­cia­relli claims they could be main­stream within a decade.

But he ad­mit­ted there were some risks associated with the devel­op­ment of ro­bots in­clud­ing over-re­liance and threats to pri­vacy. “Ro­bots should work along­side hu­mans to sup­port them, not to re­place them,” he said. “And when ma­chines can un­der­stand our emo­tions and are in our public spa­ces the en­tire con­cept of pri­vacy needs to be re­de­fined.”

We are look­ing at cre­at­ing a so­cially in­tel­li­gent ma­chine that can un­der­stand very sub­tle signs

Can I help you? Pep­per the ro­bot is com­ing to a public place near you soon Photograph: Getty

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