Being human

Professor Mari Velonaki is building a future where robots enhance humanity and have a positive impact on society, writes Susanna Smith.

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Professor Mari Velonaki and friends in the Creative Robotics Lab. Photo: Quentin Jones

When discussion turns to robots, it is often to lament the prospect of automated industrial machines replacing humans in the workplace.

Professor Mari Velonaki envisions a less gloomy future: “We are not interested in building machines that will replace humans; we are interested in creating systems that enhance humans,” she says.

As the Director of UNSW’s Creative Robotics Lab, Velonaki has spent the past five years leading a pioneering multidisciplinary team from UNSW Art & Design, the School of Computer Science & Engineering and the School of Psychology to discover how humans can interact with robots to benefit society.

Over the next year, the lab will play a leading role in the establishment of the new National Facility for Human-Robot Interaction Research and introduce a new multidisciplinary undergraduate program in social robotics.

“We take a very strong position in our lab about social robotics and why we need to develop new technologies,” Velonaki says. “Ideologically, we believe that if you are going to put all the resources, human and material, into designing a new technological system, it has to have a positive function in society.”

That ideology is obvious in a recent collaboration with the Fuji Xerox Technology Group, in which the Creative Robotics Lab developed a social robot to enhance workplace experiences for employees by streamlining administrative tasks, giving them more time to create and collaborate. The robot, which is being tested in Fuji Xerox’s offices in Japan, will gather data from the interactions to inform future research and development in social robotics.

Two other robots, Paro and Kaspar, act as psychological enrichment tools for use in research in the Creative Robotics Lab.

Paro is a fluffy white seal built to help people with dementia to communicate. The patients respond to Paro because it feels good to touch and encourages conversation.

“Interestingly, Paro became a conversation starter for people who were very reclusive and didn’t want to interact with anything,” Velonaki says.

Kaspar is a doll-like social robot that teaches children with Autism Spectrum Disorder to feel more comfortable with social interaction. He might look plain but his mask-like features were based on feedback from children with the disorder.

“Even with mid-range autism, children don’t feel comfortable with face-to-face gazing. They were comfortable with Kaspar so they were going to learn from that,” Velonaki says.

The National Facility for Human Robot Interaction Research, which will open in mid-2018, is a partnership between UNSW (Art & Design, Computer Science and Engineering, School of Psychology), UTS (Centre for Autonomous Systems), the University of Sydney (Australian Centre for Field Robotics, School of Information Technologies) and St Vincent’s Hospital (Department of Rehabilitation Medicine). It includes a test space equipped with a fully functional kitchen and more than 200 sensors, unidirectional microphones, infrared cameras and lasers that can record real-time information about human interactions as rehab patients move around within it.

“The facility will be a game changer because we will be able to unobtrusively collect extremely important data about how a person going through rehabilitation operates in space without them having to wear any sensors,” Velonaki says. “I think it will also influence the way we design robots and the way we evaluate robots before they go out into society because we can learn so much more about human interactions.”

I think it will also influence the way we design robots and the way we evaluate robots before they go out into society because we can learn so much more about human interactions.

A new three-unit multidisciplinary undergraduate program will begin in 2019 and Velonaki says this will place UNSW as a world leader in teaching social robotics.

“I have always wanted to curate a course that talks about all the different things that can influence human robotics and create a map for future researchers,” she says. “It is a growing area in academia and I think it is critical for us to be pioneers in it. We would like to offer something hands-on to demystify social robotics.”

With an academic background in media arts followed by 10 years of Australian Research Council-funded research in a robotics centre, Velonaki believes that art and science should inform one another for the benefit of humanity.

“It is nothing new: the Da Vinci model states that art and science should work together,” she says. “Art should be there from the beginning because there are a lot of creative principles involved when you design a system that is going to be in society. You want to have art and design principles and you want them to be interesting.

“I want social robotics at UNSW and in Australia to lead with ethical design, creativity and with all the disciplines working together at a level where we can actually produce new research that will hopefully inform us to build better systems as a community.”

Velonaki sees future roles for social robots in healthcare and education, where she believes they will enhance the jobs of busy professionals and allow them to concentrate on providing human interactions.

“I think we are in a position to shape the future, but we need to take responsibility for shaping the future of society, not just academia. I think it is very important to design technological systems that enhance humanity, not take away from it,” she says.

Ultimately, Velonaki believes that the biggest challenge to building social robots is humans: “Because they are unpredictable and imaginative and difficult and inspiring and there’s all these wonderful things that humans are. In social robotics I think the challenge is to create systems that can enhance all of these human qualities.”

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Roshan Thapliya, Research Senior Manager of the Research and Technology Group at Fuji Xerox.

Revolution in the workplace

UNSW’s Creative Robotics Lab and the Fuji Xerox Research Technology Group have developed a social robot designed to promote creativity and collaboration in the workplace.

The social robot, designed to improve employee experience in the workplace, is part of a three-year collaboration between the UNSW Creative Robotics Lab and the Fuji Xerox Research Technology Group (RTG) in Japan.

The first phase of the project, which is funded by Fuji Xerox, involved preliminary engineering tests at UNSW. In the next phase, the robot will be placed in real-life scenarios to test audience reactions, first at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo then at the Fuji Xerox office. Data from the interactions will be collected to help further development of the robot.

The new social robot will interact with employees in the workplace and perform administrative and organisational tasks, allowing workers to use their time to create. 

The UNSW Creative Robotics Lab will work on the design and psychological programming of the robot. Other technical aspects, such as robo-navigation and artificial intelligence, will be developed by the UNSW School of Computer Science in collaboration with Fuji Xerox.

“If you look at an average office worker at the moment, almost 70-80% of their time they are not doing the work they should be doing,” says Roshan Thapliya, Research Senior Manager of the Research and Technology Group at Fuji Xerox.

“We would like a special type of robot that would fit right into the workplace so that people will not be disturbed by its presence but at the same time help them with their tasks.”

The second phase will concentrate on developing technology that will monitor and enhance the employees’ wellbeing and facilitate collaboration between colleagues.

“Our main goal is to make a companion for humans … I think one of the differentiators will be understanding the person’s emotional requirements and acting not in a physical way, but in a subtle way that facilitates positive arousal … we want to create a heartful robot.”