Bonding exercise

Robots designed to grow emotionally in the same way as a human children are being developed at the University of Hertfordshire.

The Feelix Growing project — Feel, Interact, eXpress — is a global approach to development with interdisciplinary grounding which is being funded to the tune of £1.68m from the European Commission’s Sixth Framework programme.

This aims to develop autonomous robots capable of interacting with humans in everyday environments, and growing emotionally with the individual with which they associate. The project began in December and will be completed by June 2010.

Dr Lola Cañamero from the university’s School of Computer Science is co-ordinating the project and will develop the machine’s emotional systems, programming them to develop positive emotions such as forming an attachment to humans. She and her team will also create emotional resonance, a skill in which the robot will mimic people’s emotions to spark positive bonding with handlers.

The aim is to further the advancement of robots targeted at entertainment and developmental, service and rehabilitation services.

The robots will get feedback from simple vision cameras, audio, contact sensors and sensors that can judge the distance between the machine and the humans. One of the first robots is already showing imprinted behaviour. Like some animals, it has become attached to its primary carer — just as babies become attached to their mothers.

‘The goal is to build machines that can develop social, functional skills to interact with humans,’ said Cañamero. ‘We are involving many researchers, including robotics experts and even animal psychologists. If robots have to be integrated with humans then they should be able to develop social and emotional skills. ‘This will help them grow with a particular person and become better adapted to them. They could match their owner’s emotional profile by being either expressive or not, depending on their handler’s characteristics.’

The project hopes to develop robots that grow up and adapt to humans in everyday environments. ‘If they are to be truly integrated in our everyday lives as companions or carers, they cannot just be taken off the shelf and put into a real-life setting — they need to adapt to their environment,’ said Cañamero.

She is collaborating with Cynthia Breazeal at MIT and Hideki Kozima, of the Communications Research Laboratory in Japan, six universities and two businesses in various European countries to develop a range of prototypes. ‘Instead of being taught everything, robots should develop with their human users so they can grow with them,’ said Cañamero. ‘For example, if the human bursts into tears, the robot will gradually learn whether it is better to try to comfort them or leave them alone.’

The researchers will also use robots to study attachment in humans and non-human primates.

While some platforms will be specially built, others will use off-the-shelf technology. Some project partners are building separate robots. One is designed to appear humanoid and is targeted at the entertainment market. The 57cm-high device should be ready in its first form by the start of 2008, when a commercial release is planned.

Another platform will consist of robotic tiles featuring sensors and lights that can hear sound and vibrate. These will be used for applications such as cognitive therapy.

For example, if a person with a knee injury were to exercise on a floor fitted with them, they could detect the user’s movement and respond to it, monitoring and providing feedback on whether the task was being carried out correctly. ‘Such a system could help motivate people and raise their willingness to exercise,’ said Cañamero.