Robots: man's new best friend?
The 29 year old Erica, living near Budapest, has been in a wheelchair since a road accident at the age of 2. Erica and her guide dog, Borka, are helping scientists from a European Union research project, LIREC, understand how robotic assistants can best interact with humans.
Asides from being a companion and a means of social integration, Borka helps physically by carrying out tasks like retrieving objects, opening doors or using light switches. Observations are made in a special room fitted with cameras to study how dogs interact, communicate, follow orders and behave in certain situations. The LIREC scientists want to use this behaviour as a model for robots, to make them more companion-like.
Researchers test their robot prototypes in real-life situations at a residential home in the university town of Hatfield, near London. One robot, called Pioneer, reacts when the refrigerator door is opened and, using patterns on the ceiling for navigations, approaches the user to help carry their drink. After the user returns to his desk, the activation of the computer screen signals Pioneer to bring the drink to the user. It does not require much imagination to see that a robot like Pioneer could also be useful in assisting a person with disabilities. Following other behavioural models, another robot prototype manages a comfortable distance from the user. Laser, infrared and optical detectors are used to measure this distance, respecting the personal space of the user.
Since there is not just a technical interest in the robots, many of the project's important scientists are biologists, who want to study and mimic natural cognitive and behavioural processes. Dogs react to changes in an environment, when a new object is placed in a room or when someone new enters, for example. They can sense trouble and react to people's emotions. There is no need or wish for robots to replace the role of dogs, but understanding how a dog attracts attention or how its personality plays a role during interaction could help scientists to develop robots that are easier to use and are more acceptable by users unfamiliar with technology.
An attempt to bring more personality to robotic technology is to be found at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. SARAH is a virtual character embodied by a seeing, talking and mobile robot with a face on the monitor. SARAH is a Social Agent Robot to Aid Humans. She can perform tasks in the lab like bringing someone the telephone when it rings. Similar to the robot Pioneer, SARAH uses patterns on the ceiling to navigate.
The developers of SARAH have implemented the concept of migration: transferring the "mind" of SARAH, which after all is just software, to other electronic devices throughout the building. SARAH can be carried around by a user in the form of a handheld device. She can also be found on a big flatscreen monitor, where she can recognise a person standing in front of her or answer questions sent by SMS.
This kind of transferral of social and cognitive attributes into robotic technologies is an important step towards bringing these prototypes into the home and workplace.