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Living with robots: Designing machines to be 'human-like'

27 Nov 2014

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"We are at a point where we can make technology that is fluent enough that people can use it," added Christensen, who holds the title of KUKA chair of robotics and distinguished professor. "We need to reach the level of fluency where getting a robot is like getting a new assistant in the home. It needs to be as easy as turning on the television."

Beyond ease of use, having robots work directly with people will require both human and machine to understand each other better. Robots will have to recognize what humans are trying to do so they can anticipate their needs and avoid inadvertently harming them.

For example, a robot hauling laundry down a narrow hallway may sense that a human is approaching it. When two humans meet each other in a hallway, they know to turn their bodies to avoid running into each other. Today's robots would stop what they're doing until the human passes, but Christensen believes future robots can be given more human-like skills.

"This opens up some interesting issues for creating a dialogue in which a human and a robot can operate collaboratively," he added.

As class sizes increase, teachers are busier than ever, and so are parents. So who's going to help kids understand critical math concepts?

Ayanna Howard believes socially aware robots may be part of the answer. Mathematics follows clear rules, rules that robots can understand. And because experienced teachers consistently see the same math misunderstandings, their "case studies" can be collected and given to robots so they can lead a child to the right solution.

Ayanna Howard

Ayanna Howard is using this friendly robot to interact with children who are having difficulty with mathematics. The robot uses knowledge from real teachers to help children with common math problems. (Photo: Rob Felt)

More challenging is giving robots the ability to know when kids are bored or frustrated so the machine can provide the right kind of encouragement. "We look at things like eye gaze, interaction in terms of choosing the right answer, or taking too long to answer a specific problem," said Howard, who is the Motorola Foundation Professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "We have modelled the differences between frustration and boredom."

In this National Science Foundation-sponsored work, Howard is also using similar approaches for children who need therapy for disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Success of both efforts is further enhanced by the fascination kids have for robots.

"We're not substituting for therapists or teachers, but we're trying to imitate how a human interacts with children," she said. "We will always have teachers or clinicians involved. There will be a feedback loop from the robot to the clinician or teacher."

Howard's team is testing two different robots for therapy and tutoring in Atlanta area schools, and has completed several of the modules they'll use, ranging from fifth-grade math to calculus. The researchers are using software to substitute for costly hardware in an effort to keep the devices below a specific price point: the cost of an Xbox game console.

"If you buy your kids an Xbox," she reasoned, "you should be able to buy them a robotic tutor."

Most robots today work with other robots on the factory floor, welding parts, painting or handling other repetitive jobs. Meanwhile, human workers handle tasks that are too complicated for robots or require significant judgment.

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