Making Robots Social

Leading experts tell us how it’s being done

Researchers look at human social intelligence from different perspectives but when it comes to integrating that  into  robots, social intelligence must be narrowed down to some key components.
Andrea Thomaz, assistant professor of interactive computing and director the Social Intelligent Machines Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says she and her colleagues looks at 4 key aspects of social intelligence: ¨the ability to learn from other people, the ability to collaborate with other people, the ability to apply emotional intelligence, and the ability to perceive and respond to another person’s intentions¨.

Developing a robot that’s capable of learning means that it can go beyond its machine programming and be taught from humans through simple observation, much the way children are. Giving a robot the ability to collaborate enables the robot to engage in teamwork activities with other humans. Emotional intelligence is of course another crucial component because emotions communicate vast amounts of information during any kind of interaction. The final component is perhaps the most crucial one: Thomaz explains, ¨A lot of research shows that people are really good at perceiving people’s intentions and goals from their actions. If I see you reach for a tool, I’m going to infer that you want that tool and think about why you want it. It’s a lot different than just seeing some pixels on a screen and inferring your hand is moving—a social robot needs to go further and understand why your hand is moving¨.

So what are these so-called social robots actually good for? They’re currently being tested for use as a treatment option for children with autism and they’re also being used in elderly care as exercise facilitators. Although they’re being referred to as social robots, nobody says you have to make friends with one of them! In fact, their perceptive abilities make them suitable for use in environments that may be highly unpredictable for example, oil spills or search and rescue missions.

If you’re interested in finding out about more on social robots, you can check out the European initiative:  Robot Companions for Citizens. Further information on this post can also be found in an article by the Kavli Foundation which aims to support scientists by promoting the public understanding of their work.

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