Engineering Empathy

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Engineering Empathy

By Carl Elliot Smith, 11 October, 2012

“In the next fifty years, autonomous robots will be everywhere.”

“The robots that we’re going to see in our world are collaborative or social robots. These robots will be around people, but they won’t be replacing people,” says Professor Rodney Brooks, Emeritus Professor of Robotics at MIT and founder of the iRobot company.

“They will revolutionise our lives in the same way that the personal computer has.”

If you think this predication sounds too optimistic, pioneers in the field have already begun to integrate social robots into our lives.

In fact, because of recent work into engineered emotional comprehension and expression, such robots might even become your friend.

Staci Parlato-Harris, a twenty-four year old PhD student at the University of Western Sydney, last year had a taste of the new lifestyle Professor Brooks is talking about.

For six months, she had a robotic friend living in her office in Sydney as part of the ‘Adopt-a-Robot’ project.

The experiment, run by the University of Western Sydney’s MARCS Auditory lab, aims to understand how humans will react to having robots playing a bigger part in their lives.

The robot’s abilities evolved throughout the project until it had advanced sensors, face and gesture recognition, and a tablet-based talking head. “We were then able to have a conversation with the robot,” says Ms Parlato-Harris.

However, with time, “the robots came to be part of the background – sitting around in the office as we worked,” she says.

 experiment at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Credit: Damith Herath

experiment at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Credit: Damith Herath

For the experiment, study leader Dr Damith Herath retro-fitted flat, disc-shaped vacuuming robots with sensory equipment and a screen displaying a face.

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October 11, 2012