Rise of the Robots – Discussing the Future of AI and Automation

Last month Infinity Robotics attended a robotics and engineering event in Glasgow focussing on the social impact of robotics in our lives and their far-reaching implications for our future. This fascinating event was great for anyone getting into robotics.

The Psychology of Robotic Engineering

One of the humanoid focussed presentations was led by psychologist, Dr. Rachael Jack, from University of Glasgow and Engineer, Dr. Frank Broz from Heriot-Watt University.

Thistreated us to an insight into the psycological research into how people communicate through facial expressions and robotics companiesplan to embed such sophisticated non-verbal communications into humanoid robotsto enhance human-robot interactions.

In current advanced robotic technology, robots like Sophia, created by Hanson Robotics, can only express six main emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. However, our facial expressions are far more complex. How we display and interpret depends upon a number of factors, such as: gender, country of origin, ethnicity and of course personal bias.

One particularly interesting issue raised by Professors Jack and Broz’s talk was when facial expressions of disgust and anger presented by a Caucasian male and East Asian women were compared.  The woman clearly expressed her emotion through her eyes, wheras the man expressed more through his cheeks and mouth. This is potentially significant for where motor control needs to be focussed, according to whether the robot is defined as having male or female gender.

Perfecting Cultural Difference in Facial Expression of Robots 

So, if our faces are so complex, with so many subtle variables, how can humanoid robotsever hope to mimic us? Dr. Jack has taken a very systematic approach, taking 3D scans  of a wide range of peoples’ faces.  Computer models of single facial muscle movements were generated and randomly combined to form an arbitrary expression. Members of the public were then asked what emotion the face represented and their response was logged.  From here a statistical computer model was generated to represent more complex facial expressions.

Soon this human simulation model will be implemented into robotic engineering of humanoids.  One of the crucial aspects of Dr Jack’s work is that the emotion being recreated is decided on by a member of the public and not a researcher..

This robotics psychology work reminded me of Susan Calvin’s, from the movie I, Robot; her job was to “make the robots seem more human.” I just wish this research had been available in 2004 while they were filming, because it might have made Will Smith seem more lifelike!

Robotic Helpers for Challenging Cognitive and Emotional Conditions

Heriot-Watt University’s Dr. Frank Broz presented his research on the potential for robots to help people on the autism spectrum..  Shockingly, according to Frank, only 16% of adults with what is commonly called ‘ASD’ are in full time employment.  One of the key reasons for this is that autistic people find it difficult to interact socially with colleagues and co-workers.

Dr. Broz’s idea is to develop socially competent, helper robotsthat can interact with a child with autism, supporting their development. This application of robot techcan be used to help children rehearse social events in their life without the usual pressures they can experience.

If you are wondering, as I was, -why not just have such children rehearse with a person, as we have learned, human faces and personal expression are very complex. A helper robotcan act as a safe practise tool to simplify learning the intricacies of communications for vulnerable children and adults.

Another aspect of the robot face is that it can be purposefully altered to respond to what the child has said. For instance, if they pay the robot a complement, it can project a happy expression.  With repeated practice it is hoped that autistic children will develop necessary social skills more easily.

While I applaud these ‘helper robot’ development efforts, there is certainly significantly more research to be done in this area.  Perhaps, this is an area where human contact and interaction is essential, where robots should act as a complement to human therapeutic interaction and not be relied on exclusively until we understand the implications fully. What do you think?

Harnessing Crowd Think

Following our networking break, small groups on tables were asked to come up with an idea on how automation could be used create a positive impact on our daily lives.

One of the fantastic aspects of the Art of Possible event was the wide diversity of participants.  Our table included three men and two women, ranging in age from mid 20’s to early 60’s.  We all had different backgrounds and the only thing which appeared to link us was an interest in AI and robotics projects.

This facilitated a lively discussion and exchange of interesting ideas from many different viewpoints. We discussed custom robotics manufacturingto artisan cooking bots.  Crowd sourcing ideas has been a re-occurring aspect of robotics development, which can only help ethical application.

Automation in Healthcare

Our healthcare discussion got me thinking about how doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers carry out many short 5-minute menial tasks, such as taking samples to the lab, completing patient records, filling out forms etc.  These tasks individually take up a short amount of time, but cumulatively take up a significant amount of the healthcare provider’s day –  time taken away from patient care.

For example, if it takes a nurse 5 minutes to take samples to the labs and this happens 10 times a day, then this takes 50 minute away from more involved duties of staff. On a larger scale, say for 10 nurses, then this is 18 hours 20 min taken away from direct patient care and effective handover.

So many health sector tasks such as this could be easily automated using the technology developed by Starship Technologiesfor delivering takeaway meals, which is currently being successfully deployed in California.

After an hour of discussions, each group was asked to pitch their idea to the workshop. The rest of the group I was in had agreed that automation would probably increase the healthcare system’s potential capacity and divert time directly back to patient care.  Ideas around the room ranged from robotic devices for insertion into the human body for monitoring health, to artificial GPs. It was interesting how every group’s chosen idea related to healthcare.  I couldn’t help but notice that when a room full of people representing a wide group of demographics were asked what they would like changed about everyday life, everyone pointed to the NHS.

We’d love to hear your ideas of how you think  automation, robots and engineeringcould help humanity and our planet.  If the fourth industrial revolution is going to take us forward, it will need everyone’s input.

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