Modern robots might have some degree of autonomy, but to say they're capable of intelligent thought is a bit of a stretch. Same deal with emotions - although machines today are smarter than they've ever been, they still haven't quite gotten the whole 'feelings' thing downpat. That doesn't stop them from mimicking human emotions and expressions, of course, nor does it stop humans from forming relationships with their robotic co-workers and colleagues.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln's School of Computer Science are interested in studying the formation of such long-term relationships. To that end, they've created an expressive little droid that goes by the name of ERWIN (Emotional Robot With Intelligent Network). This robot is capable of displaying five distinct emotions when interacting with humans via the manipulation of an artificial mouth and eyebrows.
One oft-cited barrier in the formation of robot-human relationships is the fact that our mechanical friends don't really have personalities, as much as we'd like to believe otherwise. That Roomba isn't quirky or determined; it's just a mass of cables and chips designed to clean up waste. That computer isn't temperamental, it's just malfunctioning hardware.
This lack of personality means that, in most cases, once a user has obtained whatever relationship they desire from a machine, there's really nothing left to be done with it. Beyond the exchange of information, they've no means of communication with whatever device they happen to be using. Ultimately, explain the researchers, this makes the formation of any sort of lasting relationship impossible.
Certainly, a human might comment on the 'mannerisms' of a particular device -they might even grow fond of it, as one might be fond of a pet - but a real, tangible connection is far out of reach. Ultimately, they're ascribing cognitive biases and quirks that aren't really there. The reason, believes the researchers, is that these robots aren't really capable of expressing themselves in human terms.
Given how frequently robots are now cropping up in consumer-related fields, this is a serious concern.
"Robots are increasingly being used in different fields, such as rescuing people from debris, in medical surgeries, elderly support and as an aid for people who have autism," explained U Lincoln PhD student Mriganka Biswas. In many cases, if these mechanical helpers aren't capable of at least imitating some degree of empathy, they'll cross right over into the uncanny valley, unnerving or even outright terrifying whoever they interact with. This isn't just a matter of looking more appealing, either - in the case of robotic caretakers and the like, the algorithms that make up their mechanical minds must be capable of empathy in order to better assess the mood and needs of their ward.
This level of empathy is exactly what Dr. John Murray and his team are hoping to achieve with ERWIN.
The design of the robot - which bears resemblance a character pulled straight from a Saturday Morning PBS special - is meant to make it more appealing to children, with special attention given to those with autism and developmental disorders. Currently, ERWIN is being used in a PhD study on how human-like thought biases might impact a relationship between a robot and its human.
ERWIN's results will becompared with those of another robot, Keepon, which is more humanoid in appearance but lacks the ability to convey emotions. Murray and his team intend to improve ERWIN's expressiveness, adding additional characteristics and personalities as the study progresses.
As time goes on, robots are going to play a larger and larger role in our society. If they're to be accepted by the average consumer, however, they're going to need to be capable of relating to them. ERWIN might represent the first step towards such acceptance, equipping machines with the empathy necessary to truly connect with their human wards and colleagues.