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Cyber Sensitive: Therapeutic Buddy Bots Get Emotional

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« on: September 17, 2010, 01:51:31 pm »

Cyber Sensitive: Therapeutic Buddy Bots Get Emotional
Robotic companions that are capable of expressing some emotion might be better as pals for autistic children as well as mentors and health advisors for young diabetic patients

SOFT AWARE: Youths interact with a
European Union consortium's robot.

By Michael Tennesen 

Diabetic children that enter the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy, are often full of apprehension about their disease, their diet and the possibility of giving themselves injections. Hospitals have tried introducing pets to calm young patients down. "Pets don't mind being at hospitals, can reduce patient hospital stays, but are expensive to train and keep, and are not very hygienic," says Tony Belpaeme of the University of Plymouth in England. Belpaeme is the coordinator of ALIZ-E, a European Union consortium of schools and institutions that is trying to develop a robot that will take the place of a pet, and that eventually may serve in the capacity of an older companion who can not only bond with the younger patient but offer counsel about diet and health matters.

Lola Cañamero of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England, says that young patients are quite willing to suppress disbelief and bond with the robot, with one caveat—the robot has to be capable of  expressing emotion: "And the robot must not only learn to express emotions themselves but read them in the patient, all of which is a tremendous challenge."

The dream of a friendly bot that could emote is old, but fiction is way ahead of science. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Nexi", along with "Kansei" from Meiji University in Japan were some of the first efforts in the last decade. Both tried to replicate real human faces with lifelike expressions. But according to Belpaeme, "The effect was eerie. You enter the room with one of these things and your brain is screaming at you, 'Don't get so close to that!'" Which is why ALIZ-E and other efforts at robot caregivers for children have shied away from other than simple toylike facial expressions, choosing to express emotion other ways.

Cañamero worked as the coordinator of an earlier project, completed this year, called FELIX GROWING, in which she and other E.U. scientists trained robots to express emotions through body language alone. Robots were programmed via motion-capture technology used in special effects for films: Actors are wired at critical spots on their bodies and their gestures used to program the robot's moves and stances expressing anger, sadness, fear, pride, happiness and excitement. Cañamero is now continuing her efforts with the ALIZ-E project at hospitals in Italy, the Netherlands and the U.K., where there is great variation in the way people in each culture utilize body language. "We expect some variety of gestures, of course, but believe there will be a basic core that will emerge from them all," she says. Robots aren't allowed the emotional range of their subjects, she adds: "They can't go crazy like a baby."

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