Edinburgh researchers seek to improve robot-to-human interactions

Leading universities in Edinburgh are conducting new research into improving the way robots communicate with humans.

The newly-created Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (ECR) has recently received an iCub talking head robot named “Nikita”. It is being taught robot-human interaction and how to mimic facial expressions.

Part of the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (MACS), the ECR is a joint venture of Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh. The Centre has received more than six million pounds of UK government funding.

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Speaking to The Student about the project, Dr Katrin Lohan, Deputy Director at the Robotics Laboratory, said: “Humans are quite good in understanding other humans, and therefore, a robot could benefit from understanding how we structure our communication if we teach something.”

“In our ‘fruit-salad’ experiment, our participants explained to Nikita how they make a fruit salad. Nikita responded to the person doing the demonstration by reflecting their gaze in an appropriate manner. I.e. Nikita would look at the person or at the objects in front of them, according to what the person themselves looked at. This simple responsive behavior in turn caused the people involved to treat Nikita well and explain the task at hand more clearly to it.”

The next step for our experiments with Nikita is to see if the way in which it learns these actions is affecting the result of what it has learned. The representation it will learn from these experiments will be then fed back through the robot, which might lead to further experiments about how we understand what Nikita has understood.”

Robotics is a rapidly advancing field and those who are participating in robotics research are part of a technological revolution.

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Speaking on her involvement, Dr Lohan said: “My own interest in robotics came about because working with robots actually helps us to learn about ourselves. In developing robots we are creating systems which interact with us and thus reflect human behaviour. To make this work we need to think about the way we humans communicate, and this turns out to be much more complex than we might initially have imagined.”

The project plays into a popular debate around what role robots will play in the future. Dr Lohan told The Student that any role they do take on will be big.

She said: “Robots, once considered pretty much science fiction, are important to our personal futures and to our economy. Robots that can learn, adapt and make decisions will revolutionise our economy and society over the next 20 years. Advanced robotics could generate a potential economic impact of $1.9 trillion to $6.4 trillion per year by 2025. This impact would result from improved health, new products and transforming the way in which products are built and services are delivered.”

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Image: Heriot Watt Robotics Laboratory

Dr Lohan disagreed with the notion that the technological developments put robots on a path to replacing humans.

“Robots and autonomous systems (RAS) do not replace people, they assist us, make us more productive and competitive in a globalised marketplace,” she told The Student.

“The upcoming generation of RAS will be beyond traditional factory production line robots, and will use software and algorithms to ‘make dumb iron smart’.”

Featured image: Heriot-Watt Robotics Department

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