Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My robot understands me

BBC reports: [edited]

Making robots that interact with people emotionally is the goal of a European project led by British scientists. Feelix Growing is a research project involving six countries, and 25 roboticists, developmental psychologists and neuroscientists.

Co-ordinator Dr Lola Canamero said the aim was to build robots that "learn from humans and respond in a socially and emotionally appropriate manner". The 2.3m euros scheme will last for three years.

"The human emotional world is very complex but we respond to simple cues, things we don't notice or we don't pay attention to, such as how someone moves," said Dr Canamero, who is based at the University of Hertfordshire.

The project involves building a series of robots that can take sensory input from the humans they are interacting with and then adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Dr Canamero likens the robots to babies that learn their behaviour from the patterns of movement and emotional state of the world around them. The robots themselves are simple machines - and in some cases they are off-the-shelf machines. The most interesting aspect of the project is the software.

One of the areas the robots will be learning from is human movement. "Motion tells you a lot about your emotional state. "The physical proximity between human and robot, and the frequency of human contact - through those things we hope to detect the emotional states we need."

"It is very important to detect when the human user is angry and the robot has done something wrong or if the human is lonely and the robot needs to cheer him or her up. We are focusing on emotions relevant to a baby robot that has to grow and help human with every day life."

One of the first robots built in the project is exhibiting imprinted behaviour - which is found among birds and some mammals when born. "They get attached to the first object they see when born. It is usually the mother and that's what makes them follow the mother around.

"We have a prototype of a robot that follows people around and can adapt to the way humans interact with it. It follows closer or further away depending on how the human feels about it.

Dr Canamero says robots that can adapt to people's behaviours are needed if the machines are to play a part in human society. At the end of the project two robots will be built which integrate the different aspects of the machines being developed across Europe.

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