Imagine life without computers. It’s likely that’s something you can’t, or don’t want to, do. Now, UTS students and researchers are working together to create software that will power more socially-aware and responsive robots. Their hope is that, one day soon, these robots will revolutionise our lives, just like the once-not-so-humble computer.
“Most robots today are anti-social. In fact, they satisfy the definition of a psychopath because they don't care and they have no feelings,” explains Director of the Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory Mary-Anne Williams.
Enter Pepper. Standing roughly 120 centimeters tall and weighing less than 30 kilograms, Pepper is social, expressive and self-aware. Pepper knows the difference between you and a chair.
It’s all thanks to the software running on Pepper (yes, Pepper is a robot). The software enables Pepper to understand that people need to be treated differently because, unlike an object like a chair, people have intentions and the ability to act.
“Pepper is adaptable, empathetic and attentive,” says Williams. “It can bring you the newspaper, tell you who won an election, entertain you, provide you with real-time data from your smart home or lead physical exercises.”
Thanks to a partnership with SoftBank Robotics, UTS is one of only eight universities worldwide that Pepper can call home. The collaboration gives UTS the chance to benchmark our work against the world’s top robotics labs, such as the University of Rome in Italy, the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Carnegie Mellon University in the USA.
“Benchmarking is critical. We don’t ask, ‘Is my algorithm more optimal than yours?’ Instead we ask ‘Can your robot solve a complex human interaction problem better, faster and more sociably than ours?’,” explains Williams.
“We are creating the future,” adds PhD student Jonathan Vitale. “It's like when they introduced computers to the university for the first time. They were very big and expensive. Then they created desktop computers.” Vitale is part of a team of 14 students and researchers who took Pepper to the RoboCup@Home social robot competition last July. But, more on that later.
Back at UTS, you wouldn’t glance twice at the nondescript Magic Lab where Pepper ‘lives’. It sits in the middle of a row of classrooms in building 11. And with the blinds drawn, prying eyes cannot see the wonders inside – a transdisciplinary team of students and researchers conducting experiments, coding and mapping, creating and testing interaction designs until they reach the ‘aha’ moment.
The team, led by Williams, consists of web designers, robotics researchers, artificial intelligence researchers, cognitive specialists and coders, just to name a few. They create the software that gives life to Pepper and will one day make robots an everyday addition to our lives.
“Robots will be another form of species,” explains Vitale. “They do not necessarily have to copy humans, as long as they can be understood by and interact with humans. They can do that through different ways of communication, like through a tablet. Robots may even have different feelings, like 'having their circuits on fire'.”
“We don’t ask, ‘Is my algorithm more optimal than yours?’ Instead we ask ‘Can your robot solve a complex human interaction problem better, faster and more sociably than ours?’”
Williams adds, “For a social robot to be successful they will need to be able to interact with people. If you saw me carrying a lot of boxes towards the door you are just coming out of, you would just open the door for me. I wouldn't even have to ask you. Will humans do the same for robots, and will robots do the same for humans?
“People effortlessly empathise with each other and that guides much of our behaviour in society. How can a robot get that kind of response from people?” Williams asks. “How can robots engage people and find win-wins in social settings and complex human-centered environments?”
The answer: robot personalities.
“You can embed any personality in a robot. You can have a grumpy, bad-tempered robot, or an overeager, helpful robot,” says Williams. “But what's important is that a robot’s traits and behaviours make sense to people and allow people to predict them.”
That’s why, this year, Williams led the university-wide hunt for Pepper’s personality. It culminated in a hackathon that invited students from all faculties and levels of robotics experience to contribute.
“It was a way to get a much more diverse set of robot personality ideas for the team to work on and bring to life,” says Williams.
Even Head of Animation at Animal Logic Rob Coleman, fresh off The LEGO Batman Movie production, joined the hackathon to explain how Hollywood creates animated characters. Students then used the same methodology to create personalities for Pepper.
“Each group came up with a personality – a job, a back story, a favorite object, a fear and a conversation,” recalls Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching and Learning student Lyndal Parker. She was one of 20 students from a range of faculties who participated in the hackathon.
“I was trying to put myself out of my comfort zone. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly creative but I have a lot to do with animals and with children. They wanted to make a robot engaging. Animals and kids really engage people. So, I thought, well, I'll put it out there and give it a go.”
In July this year, some of these personalities were used by the UTS team (the only Australian team to qualify) in the newly established social robotics league at RoboCup 2017 – the biggest robot competition in the world.
It wasn’t the first appearance by the university. Williams says, “Past years have seen UTS earn a reputation for innovation by thinking outside the engineering box. We have had sports players and dancers on our robot soccer team who helped develop ballerina-type kicking motions and the league’s first ‘dodge’ and ‘dribble’ manoeuvers that changed the way the game is played.”
And with RoboCup 2018 and 2019 being held in Montreal, Canada and Sydney respectively, Williams is confident it won’t be our last. “Our enviable track record as one of the most innovative teams emboldens us to ignore conventional approaches to robotics, and to pursue radically unconventional designs drawn from our transdisciplinary foundations.”
The UTS team is still looking for members from all faculties. To find out more about how you can be involved, visit utsunleashed.webnode.com