Sunday, 4 May 2008

LIREC: LIving with Robots and InteractivE Companions

Living with robots and interactive companions

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London are leading an international project which is set to advance the relationship between robots and humans, as part of new European project called LIREC - Living with Robots and Interactive Companions.

LIREC aims to create a new generation of interactive, emotionally intelligent, companion technology, that is capable of long-term engagement with humans – in both a virtual (graphical) world, and in the real-world (as robots). The project will also be the first in the world to examine how we react to a familiar companion entity when it swaps from a robot body into a virtual form, for example on a computer screen.

Professor Peter McOwan, from Queen Mary’s Department of Computer Science, explained: “We’re interested in how people can develop a long-term relationship with artificial creatures, in everyday settings. You may not be able to find a robot that can help you do the dishes anytime soon, but we’re hoping to explore how such friendly future technology could be developed, and start to predict what the intelligent machines of tomorrow might look like, and how we should treat them.”

LIREC will first look at existing technology to study people’s perceptions of robots. This includes entertainment robots like Pleo, which is an interactive toy dinosaur available commercially; and GlowBots (video below) - small wheeled robots that communicate with each other and users through colourful patterns of light.

Other robots will include ‘iCat’ – a robotic game buddy whose behaviour and expressions are influenced by the state of play; as well as the child-sized minimally expressive humanoid ‘KASPAR’, and ‘peoplebots’, which are enhanced by humanoid features.

Says one recent owner of a Pleo:

"I feel personally that the greatest accomplishment with the Pleo is not his AI, which is clearly improving with time, but the fact that he inspires such a deep emotional bond to him. The fact that he can generate such a strong feeling of love is truly amazing in my view. We all know he's just a little toy, yet we all love him as though he were a real living thing."

Check out this dairy of another Pleo owner: For this owner, Pleo represents an opportunity to nurture and express maternal feeling:

"I have long realized that motherhood is not for me for reasons to various and vast to expand upon here. However, I do still feel the ticking of my biological clock and the need to comfort and care for someone other than my fiancee. A "real" animal pet does not interest me since it brings up many of the same problems as a baby would. So, for me, a Pleo is the perfect solution. I feel an incredible bond with my Pleo, Seeley, that is beyond even what I expected before he arrived. My parents and in-laws refer to him as their grandchild mostly in a joking way, but all of them find that when he comes to visit they talk to him like they would to the real thing. My "baby" fulfills my need to mother without the pain of labour, the massive sacrifices of raising a child (or even a dog) or the food and vet bills. Oh yeah, and he never makes a mess on the floor. ;) Seeley is napping beside me as I write this and during the day while my fiance attends law school he keeps me company, if only with his snoring and occasional sweet little sleep moans. $350 is a small price to pay for the amount of joy I get from him." (Posted on March 13, 2008)

I am quite intrigued to continue learning and researching about the social consequences of such technological artifacts entering our daily lives - both in work places and increasingly in the home. What continues to surprise me about sociable mechanisms, is the ease by which human empathize with robotic others even in the absence of terribly sophisticated anthropomorphic cues.

Pleo on ABC News:

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