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.”

From India to the UK: Top tips from an international student

Starting university can be daunting at the best of times, but even more so when you’re studying overseas and leaving your home country for the first time.

That’s what Indian student Samia Mohinta faced when starting her MSc in Advanced Computing last month. Samia has thrown herself into life in Bristol and has some advice and insight for others in a similar position…

Hello readers,

Are you having cold feet – terrified to leave your home country? Or have you taken the big leap, but missing home? Keep reading! This post lists all that I found useful while coming to the UK and after two weeks of being here.

This is my first time anywhere outside India. I am an avid traveller, but stepping out of India, to go to a place for a year without family and friends, did freak me out. So, trust me, I can understand how you all are feeling. Don’t worry, you are not alone.

Here are a few tips to help organise yourself and shake off the blues before and after you travel to the UK:

  1. Prepare beforehand: If you are planning to study at the University of Bristol, get an idea about the city before you arrive. Bristol is hilly, so start working on improving stamina, because you’ll need a lot of that when you climb up to reach your lectures. There are quite a few blogs on the city of Bristol and reading one of those will give you sufficient information of what the city is like. Currently, for me, it’s fantastic.
  2. Review your goals: Think and write your aspirations on a page. Judge your potential. The Indian model of imparting education is very different from here. Unlike in India, you won’t be spoon-fed with information and details all the time. You need to be self-motivated and alert to grab the opportunities that come your way.
  3. Understand the course you are going to take: Go through your course modules and check if you understand what it’s about. This is very important. I have seen a lot of my friends dropping out of courses that they chose without self-judgement of potential. Follow your interests and think about your existing experience and skill set.
  4. University of Bristol flags at Heathrow airport
    Reach out for help: If you are travelling alone from India to UK, reach out to people if you face any problem. Don’t panic. Speak to your co-travellers, even if you don’t know them and ask for advice. You shall definitely find someone travelling to the same or a nearby place. Team up! I myself had a four-hour delayed flight, which led to a lot of problems after landing in Heathrow. I reached out to the University representatives, who were present at the airport, bus stops and train stations, and got my issues sorted.
  5. Only pack for one week: Don’t fill your bag with unnecessary stuff. Bring dry food to last a week. Pack some cooked food, just to soothe your cravings. Bring hoodies, warm jackets, gloves, mufflers and sweat shirts. Also pack a few cottons and summer dresses. If you can, pack a pressure cooker or a rice cooker – extremely useful to prepare a quick meal. Carry some cloth hangers and air-tight tiffin boxes as well.
  6. Indian food: Do not carry a lot of Indian spices because you can get everything in the supermarkets. But I shall ask you to pack a small amount of flour or rice for making chapattis or rice, so that you do not need to rush to a supermarket immediately after you arrive. There are a lot of Indian restaurants all around the city, pop in to satisfy your occasional cravings. Take a bus to Easton and find loads of Indian stuff.
  7. When in Britain, do as the British do: Try and get a brief idea about the British culture. You should know how to greet people when you meet them. In India, we usually don’t shake hands, but here it is a common courtesy. Be polite and friendly.
  8. Make new friends: I know it sounds weird. You cannot just be friends with someone after a tiny chit chat. However, meet a lot of people. I am not suggesting you to jump into parties, but during uni hours speak to your classmates and get to know each other. You can join a few societies or clubs (there are nearly 200 clubs and societies in UoB) and make a few friends. Get out of your comfort zone and shake a leg at a dance taster session.
  9. Exploring Bristol harbourside
    Explore Bristol, reduce boredom: Bored with sitting at home? Grab a backpack and put your travel shoes on. Time to explore Bristol! Bristol boasts of beautiful parks, hot-air balloons (I am personally fascinated with these), Ferry rides at the Harbourside, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (loved the view from it), Museums and some fantastic graffiti decorating the walls of the entire city. Get a student’s one-day bus pass for £3 and explore the Bristol inner zone. You can also buy an outer zone pass that lets you access Bath and Bristol completely for a day.
  10. Take your modules seriously: Go to the lectures. Don’t get unnerved if you find the first few a little difficult. Read the materials and ask for help from your professors. There are dedicated teams for mental health in the University, who can help you cope with the study pressure. A lot of Indians study at UoB as well, reach out to them via the Indian Society and share your worries.

Life is all about taking risks. Sign yourself up for an adventure every day and reap the satisfaction it brings. This new world in Bristol is a lot different from yours back in India. It is way more organised. It is also extremely welcoming. Be confident. You shall shine!

Thank you for being with me till the end.

PS : I shall come back with some other fun stuff about my adventures in Bristol. Stay tuned!

Student well-being

There are many options at Bristol if you need any support settling into University life or just need to chat to somebody. Find out where to get help here.

My mental health: An honest chat with Professor Dave Cliff

Dave Cliff, Professor of Computer Science, talks about his experience with a break down in his mental health. How catastrophic thinking, panic attacks and the stigma around mental health made his life miserable and how he came through the other side.

Talking about your mental health (good, bad and everything in between) is something we really encourage and we’re proud that our staff are leading by example. If you’re a student and need to talk to someone about your mental health or get some support you can talk to the teams in your school office, or find more resources on the University of Bristol website. If you ever need a chat you can contact the Samaritans 24/7  no matter who you are. 

“People said I was brave”

Dave talks about people’s reactions to  the video and the bravery of asking for help

I once made a video, or should I say: a video was once made of me. It was a talking-head interview, about the time I had a breakdown. Severe anxiety and depression; suicidal thoughts. It’s seven minutes long, and I speak maybe a thousand words.

I did it because I was asked to do so by a colleague, an old friend, who was putting together material for a new non-credit bearing elective course that would be made available to all students at The University of Bristol, where I work. I didn’t give it much thought, didn’t know what questions I would be asked and didn’t rehearse any of the answers. We shot it in one take, maybe 25 or 30 minutes in total, and then the video production folk went away and skilfully edited it down to a more manageable length. Once the final edit was released to our students, and to the rest of the world on YouTube, I started getting feedback, comments — people saying nice things about it — and in those comments something caught me by surprise. There was this one word that got used a lot when people commented on what I’d done, a word that I didn’t expect at all. People said that I was brave.

I’ve thought quite hard about this and, given this opportunity to write about it now, almost 18 months since we shot the footage and more than five years since I got sick, I’d like to explain why I don’t think I was brave at all. Or, at least, why I don’t want to be thought of as brave for making a video.

Should I first introduce myself? I’m a Professor of Computer Science at The University of Bristol, a role I’ve been in for the past 11 years. Prior to that I’d held professorial posts at Southampton and at MIT, plus I’d spent seven years working in frontline industrial artificial intelligence R&D for Hewlett-Packard and for Deutsche Bank. But what I’m writing here isn’t about my CV. Let’s get back to this bravery thing.

If someone was cycling too fast, had an accident, broke a limb, received medical care, took time off work to get well, and came back fixed, that’d be pretty routine. What if that person then made a talking-head video about what happened, how they’d been riding too fast for too long and how after the accident they don’t ride quite so fast now, quite so recklessly, now they know how painful the end-result can be? Would we call that person brave? I think not. When I made this video I didn’t for a moment think that I was being brave, because it shouldn’t be an act of bravery to talk about what is, after all, an experience that very many people go through and in which for many people, like me, the story ends well. I was just doing what I wish many more people would do, talking openly and honestly about mental health. I got sick, dangerously so. I sought help and got good care, for which I remain very very very thankful indeed. And I got better. And then I told people what happened. How does me telling that story mean that I’m brave?

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t work out this way for everyone: some people suffer from chronic mental health issues that go on for a very long time, lifetimes even; some people don’t find, or ask for, the right help in time; their stories may not end nearly so as well as mine. In these senses, I was lucky.

As far as I’m concerned, me telling my story wasn’t a brave thing to do at all. It was an act of thanks, a little celebration of my recovery. Like getting back on the bike and going for a ride and enjoying the wind in your face and laughing out loud that you’re once again able to do something you love; that you’re fixed, the bad times are behind you, that you’re well.

Looking back over the whole sequence of events, if I had to choose one thing I did that I do think of as brave, it was the moment when I was first sat facing my doctor, took a deep breath, and spoke honestly about what was going on inside my head. Before I could get a word out I was in tears and could barely talk. But I knew I had run out of road, that I’d lost control and that I couldn’t deal with the situation alone. For me that was an extraordinarily difficult step to take, one that I very nearly didn’t. I am so glad that I did, and I guess I’m writing these words in the hope that maybe they’ll encourage someone else to take that first step, to reach out and ask for help. In my opinion, that’s the brave bit: the bit when you ask for help. No video required.

Writing this has made me think quite hard, and I realise now that when I spoke to my doctor that was the first time I’d said those words out loud. I was talking as much to myself as to the medic: it was my first admission, not just to my doctor but to me, that I was in a desperately bad way; the first time I said that I needed help. I wasn’t just telling my doctor I was sick, I was telling me too. For me, that was the really difficult part. If ever I was brave, that was the brave bit.

I’m very glad I took that step but it was not at all easy. If my video encourages others to take the same step when they’re in a bad place, to be brave enough to admit they need help and to seek that help, then I think it will have been useful. I hope that it is.