EU project to bridge emotional gap between robots and humans

Researchers have created robots that are autonomous and capable of adapting to changes in their environment, but how strong a relationship do robots have with humans? An international group of
scientists is determined to find out, headed by Queen Mary, University of London, the scientists are seeking to enhance the relationship between robots and humans, as part of the new EU-funded
project LIREC (Living with Robots and Interactive Companions), which will run for a period of four years.

Backed by the EU with ?8.2 million in funding, the LIREC partners will create a new generation of interactive, emotionally intelligent, companion technology with the capacity to connect with
humans for an extended period of time. The consortium says that existing technology is commonly based on short-term interactions and the novelty effect wears off as well.

LIREC will use ideas taken from a study of pet dog behaviours to address attachment to a robot, says project coordinator Peter McOwan, a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Queen
Mary. He adds that the sorts of things that dogs do that help form an attachment for their owners, will be studied.

While people may question the use of robots as companions, the LIREC partners believe their role is significant. ‘You could ask the same question about pets, do we need cats and dogs as
companions, for example,’ Professor McOwan told CORDIS News. ‘Companionship is important for the elderly and lonely, but also as mentors and assistants to help us at all stages of our lives.
Life will be better if our future technology interacts with us in a form we easily understand, that’s sensitive to our needs, and has an established link with us developed over time and mutual
experience.’

The project leader says LIREC is keen to determine how people can develop a long-term relationship with artificial creatures, in everyday settings. While a robot cannot carry out household
chores, he says the team is ‘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’.

Because the scientists are at an early stage in the project, they have not yet specified what the companions will be capable of doing. However, Professor McOwan points out that they will be
able to assist in ‘mentoring students, monitoring how a person is at home, and so on’.

With such a forward-looking project, ethical questions may arise. Some people believe that ethical input is necessary at the design and implementation phases of the technologies in question.
Stressing the ethical dimension of LIREC, Professor McOwan says: ‘If we are successful in creating synthetic companions which people feel an emotional bond to, then clearly how this
relationship is managed is important, peoples’ feelings need to be handled with care.’ The partners will also establish ethical guidelines for experiments with companion technologies, which
will help shape future projects, he adds.

Not only will this research develop the technology for the companions, but it will also explore what makes for companionship. Questions about human relationships, relationships with pets, among
others will be examined by LIREC. ‘They will be of use across a range of affective technologies, and help in sociology and psychology,’ Professor McOwan points out.

It should be noted that LIREC can be compared with the EU-funded project FEELIX GROWING for its similarity in exploring social intelligence and how it is created in artificial systems. However,
while LIREC will build on a number of lessons from FEELIX GROWING, the project will further investigate how extended relationships can be established in real social situations, the project
leader says. ‘LIREC will create identifiable socially aware entities that maintain their characteristics when they migrate from say a robot body in your house to appear as an avatar on your
PDA, for example’.

The technology is being developed by a 10-strong team of researchers from 7 countries, active in various fields, including human-computer interaction, psychology, robotics and graphical
characters.

For more information, please visit:
https://www.qmul.ac.uk/

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