Fitter, happier… the rise of social robots

Socially Assistive Robots can provide motivation and guidance for those in need of a companion – Katie Winkle, Bristol Robotics Lab PhD student, explains ways that this is already happening

On 4 August this year, the maverick French inventor Franky Zapata crossed the Channel on a jet-powered hoverboard, with the 21-mile journey taking him just over 23 minutes. Clearly a remarkable achievement, but also a very public prompt to all those working in labs on the cool tech of the future – as envisioned by the sci-fi shows of the 50s – that they need to up their game. Yes, the white-coated technicians responsible for jetpacks, flying cars and robot housekeepers – we are talking about you. Teasing aside, Katie Winkle, a PhD student currently undertaking research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, specialises in the field of Socially Assistive Robotics (SAR) and is certain that her area of study isn’t an unrealisable sci-fi pipe dream.

“I don’t think the use of robots as social companions and helpers is that far away, actually,” she says confidently. “Right now, I could program a robot for a specific use case for a school or a hospital. The real difficulty is in scaling that up in a way that still works for lots of different people and applications. That’s why we are researching it, but it is doable. I’m optimistic.”

Socially Assistive Robotics is a relatively new area of robotics that focuses on assisting users through social rather than physical interaction. So while there are physical robots that have been designed to help with ostensibly manual tasks as varied as assembling cars or even picking strawberries, a Socially Assistive Robot is subtler than that.

‘Pepper’ robot demonstrates arm exercises to a patient

They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine.

They can support a trained practitioner, such as a teacher, to provide guidance and motivation to a person – in doing so, they attempt to give the correct cognitive cues to encourage development, learning, or therapy.

As Katie explains: “The distinction is that these robots aren’t physical, they are social. They’re not going to help you out of bed by lifting you, but they might tell you to get out of bed. Or they might remind you to take your medicine. They could even help to combat the issue of loneliness. The key is that the usefulness comes from the social interaction, such as conversation and companionship, rather than a physical act.”

Pet rescue

Another key definition is that a Socially Assistive Robot is not simply for entertainment and they should perform a useful process. But what are the main fields that these robotic companions could help and what are the tangible examples?

Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.

“There are many, but the two areas I always mention first are health and education,” says Katie. “The applications we are starting to see linked to mental health are generally based around loneliness and dementia care. Robots have been introduced into nursing homes, where dementia patients have been given robotic pets to help with wellbeing. There’s certainly less mess than with a real dog.”

Another example is the use of robots in autism therapy. For children who have autism or social anxiety, robots can provide a safe social companion, ‘someone’ they can practice social interaction with. Autistic children respond well in these circumstances. In these cases, the robots are being essentially used to help them with their social skills and that has a very real application of putting them back into human-human interaction.

Katie Winkle with a Nao robot

“All these robots are helping where you need a social presence and there isn’t a human available,” explains Katie. “So, in between therapy visits or gym sessions, there is a robot there to provide the motivation you don’t have.

“As a proposal for future research here at the Lab, I would love to take a robot into Bristol Childrens’ Hospital and use it as a companion for children who are isolated there long-term.”

The use of Socially Assistive Robots in education is essentially the same thing again: helping children who perhaps need extra attention, or children in group sizes that are too big. The robot can perform small group work.

“It’s anywhere where you’d like to have an intelligent social presence, but you don’t. They are all cases where social influence is important,” adds Katie.

Personality issues

It’s important to Katie that her work at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory must at all times consider the end-user, the human who is being assisted by the robot. Just as you might not get along with your teacher or clash with the personality of another, is there any guarantee you’ll get on with your robot?

“The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

“When we talk about robot personalities and robot emotions,” explains Katie, “what we are really saying is how well can we program a robot to look like it has those. This means we need to learn about human behaviour and then hook it into a robot. If someone is an extrovert, they’ll talk a lot, move hands about… we can model many of those things from psychology and put it on a robot. The personality type of the robot needs to suit the personality of the person it is helping.”

Metal motivators

“I’m working on a study right now where I’ve got a robot set up in the gym over on campus. The idea is to help people with the Couch To 5k running programme over a nine-week programme, with the robot assisting three times a week. To begin with, the robot is being controlled with the fitness instructor and over time, the robot will learn how to give encouragements at the right time.

“The robot will be giving the runners challenges. Some will respond to direct encouragement – ‘Come on, you can do it! Push a bit harder!’, while with others, it will be more sympathetic, because that’s what they need. Personalisation of robot interaction is a big thing.”

Katie’s Couch To 5k study is an easy-to-understand, tangible concept that brings the near-endless possibilities of Socially Assistive Robots to life. But are there any areas where they won’t be able to help?

We’ll leave the final word to Katie: “I’ve seen work investigating the effectiveness of a ‘marriage counsellor’ robot – it was a talking head in a wig that was supposed to facilitate conversation in couples therapy. Even I’m not sure about that one just yet, it’s a bit of a stretch.”

Academic profile

Name: Katie Winkle (MEng)
Title: PhD Student at Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Studies:
MEng Mechanical Engineering
PhD Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Katie’s story:
“Growing up, I was interested in cars, in how machines work, stuff we can build using science in an applied way. My dad was a car mechanic and he encouraged my curiosity.

“My Undergraduate Degree was Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bristol. I was all set to go into the automotive industry and wasn’t at all thinking about robotics. Then we had a final-year lecturing unit on the subject and it completely captured my imagination.

“I originally thought I’d work with very physical assistive robots, like those that help you walk. But as I got here, I found I was much more drawn to social interaction. I found it much more interesting. I was amazed that I could put a social robot in front of somebody right now and how I could make that useful. I find the underlying psychology so fascinating and that’s why I’m where I ended up now.”

Using sound waves to detect deadly diseases

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and acoustic levitator

Professor Bruce Drinkwater and his colleagues in Brazil are using acoustics to detect disease. Their collaboration was one of the six projects shortlisted in the Brazil category for the prestigious 2018 Newton Prize.

Sand fly biting skin
Sand flies transfer the parasites that cause Leishmaniasis
Bruce believes that new technology is the key to tackling the challenges of disease and poverty. He said, “As an engineer, working with the end-users of this technology, this is an area where I can make a difference. Leishmaniasis is a tropical disease that’s endemic in 97 countries. More than a million new cases occur each year world-wide and without early diagnosis, people are at risk of disability and death.  Parasites, transferred by sand-fly bites, cause ulcers of the skin, mouth and nose with skin lesions resembling leprosy. Unchecked, infections can be life-limiting, leading to horrific disfigurement, fever, loss of red blood cells and an enlarged spleen and liver.”  

Bruce is working with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil.

Regular communication is crucial in this interdisciplinary project. Here Professors Silva and Moreira in Brazil discuss the experimental results of a new diagnostic device in a video link to Professor Drinkwater in the UK.
The team have made some fantastic breakthroughs in the area of disease detection: “We are developing small and robust prototype acoustic devices that have the potential to detect Leishmaniasis. The lab-on-a-chip devices use acoustic forces to sort and sense thousands of cells, or other microscopic objects, simultaneously. In Leishmania, the infected cells (macrophages) have different mechanical properties from healthy cells. We can exploit this difference in various ways, sorting diseased from healthy cells is just one. The devices can also help detect antibodies in blood and antigens in urine samples by concentrating them with ultrasonic forces. This leads to more rapid diagnosis and monitoring of the disease.

If successful, theses devices could have a huge impact on the lives of those in Brazil and other developing countries: “Leishmaniasis  is one of the NTDs that lag far behind HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria when it comes to research funding. It affects 20,000 people each year in parts of Brazil where poverty, overcrowding and inadequate sanitation are major risk factors. If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other NTDs, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. “

If we can have an impact on Leishmaniasis, the same techniques could be used against other neglected tropical diseases, transforming outcomes for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

“These devices are undergoing testing by Brazilian biomedical researchers working on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) with promising results. After further development of the devices, the next phase will be field trials in hard to access areas where help is most needed.

More information

Newton Fund:
The Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to promote economic development in countries eligible for official development assistance (ODA). A grant from the Newton fund and the Royal Society made possible Bruce’s research partnership with Professor Glauber Silva from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil, enabling them to bring together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in engineering, physics and biomedicine.

https://www.newtonfund.ac.uk

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leishmaniasis  (Content note: graphic images depicting disease)

Best of the Impossible Garden (so far)

The Impossible Garden is a set of new experimental sculptures, by artist Luke Jerram, inspired by visual phenomena. The exhibition is a collaboration with Bristol Vision Institute and aims to enhance our understanding of vision. All summer visitors have been exploring the garden and discovering engaging art exhibits, designed to stimulate debate about how visual impairments can affect our perception of the world around us. We gathered some of the best Instagram shots of the exhibits so far.

 

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By Luke Jerram

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Just a little glimpse of @lukejerramartist’s Impossible Garden at @brisbotanicgdn 🌿

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A taste of the glitch bench; this and many other exhibits designed to challenge your ideas of sight in the #impossiblegarden

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Think you can do better? The University of Bristol Botanic Garden is a riot of colour as the season change, so grab your camera. The Impossible Garden is open to the public until Sunday 25 November 2018. Open from 10 am until 4.30 pm, 7-days-a-week, including bank holidays. For those with visual impairments, we have audio and braille copies of the brochure available.

Find out more about the Impossible Garden.