Who can be My Companion?

Science-fiction regularly portrays deep friendship or even romantic relationships between a human and a machine, e.g., Dolores and William (Westworld, 2016), Joi and K (Bladerunner 2049, 2017) or Poe and Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon, 2018 and 2020). In fact, for several years now, there has been a development approach aiming to create artificial companions. The so-called companion paradigm focuses on social abilities to create adaptive systems that adapt their behavior to the user and his/her environment [1]. This development approach creates a high degree of individualization and customization. The paradigm principally intends to reduce the complexity of innovative technology, which can go together with a lack of user-friendliness and frustrated users [2]. Ulm University hosted in 2015 the International Symposium of Companion Technology (ISCT). The ISCT conference paper gives a broad overview of the research issues in this field [3]. Some of the discussed research questions approached data input modalities for recognizing emotional states and the user’s current situation or dialog strategies of the artificial companions in order to create a trustworthy relationship. Although the paradigm is already approached quite interdisciplinary, Prof. Hepp (2020) has recently called on communication and media scientists to participate more influential in these discussions. Since in particular, the human-machine-communication was explored lacking pronounced participation of communication scholars [4]. In terms of perception, thrilling issues could consider e.g., possible gradations among different companion systems, and what effects these have on the interaction and communication with the technology? Such questions have to be discussed not only by computer scientists but also by psychology and philosophy scholars. Especially when it comes to the question of how human-machine-relationship will develop in the long run? Will companion systems drift into unemotional and function-centric routines as we have with other technologies, or can they become our forever friends?


[1] Wahl M., Krüger S., Frommer J. (2015). Well-intended, but not Well Perceived: Anger and Shame in Reaction to an Affect-oriented Intervention Applied in User-Companion Interaction. In: Biundo-Stephan S., Wendemuth A., & Rukzio E. (Eds.). (2015). Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Companion-Technology (ISCT 2015)—September 23rd-25th, Ulm University, Germany. p. 114-119. https://doi.org/10.18725/OPARU-3252

[2] Biundo S., Höller D., Schattenberg B., & Bercher P. (2016). Companion-Technology: An Overview. KI – Künstliche Intelligenz, 30(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13218-015-0419-3

[3] Biundo-Stephan S., Wendemuth A., & Rukzio E. (Eds.). (2015). Proceedings of the 1st International Symposium on Companion-Technology (ISCT 2015)—September 23rd-25th, Ulm University, Germany. https://doi.org/10.18725/OPARU-3252

[4] Hepp A. (2020). Artificial companions, social bots and work bots: Communicative robots as research objects of media and communication studies. Media, Culture & Society, 016344372091641. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720916412


The Girl with Robot Arms

Tilly Lockey was diagnosed with Meningococcal Septicaemia Strain B when she was 15 months old. Due to that disease, the doctors had to amputate both her arms and toes to give her a chance to survive. Since then, her mom has been fighting to ensure that she can do everything that children with hands can do. In the past years, they tried various myoelectric prosthesis, which Tilly describes as “very basic” as these were only capable of opening and closing. In January 2019 Tilly was surprised with Open Bionic Hero Arms for the Alita: Battle Angel film premiere. This medically certified prosthesis is custom 3D-printed and detects muscle movement thanks to special sensors. It works fully intuitively and provides its user with feedback through vibrations, lights and sounds. Thanks to 3D printing, an arm can be made within 40 hours and is quite affordable compared to other bionic hands (launching price of £5,000). The Hero Arms allow Tilly to be a “normal” teenager. She says she feels “more like everyone else”. Which is apparent in simple things such as doing thumbs up on a selfie or playing the Wii. Intelligent prostheses like the Hero Arms have a great impact on the quality of life for people like Tilly. It is that kind of transhuman achievements that increase independence and self-confidence tremendously for individuals. Here you can find more Hero Arm success stories (image source: Open Bionics Press Images).

Robots for Climate

On 20 September 2019 FridaysforFuture had called for worldwide climate strikes. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to protest for more sustainable industry and long-term climate policies to fight global warming. Technological progress and the protection of the environment do not necessarily have to contradict. Quite the opposite, we will present 3 robots which show that technology can be used to achieve climate goals. Planting trees is the most efficient strategy to recover biodiversity and stop climate change. However, this method requires lots of human power. The GrowBot automates this task resulting in a planting rate that is 10 times faster than trained human planters. In contrast to planting drones, the little truck-alike robot not only spreads seeds, instead it plants small trees into the soil which gives them a better chance to survive and foster reforestation. The bio-inspired Row-bot converts organic matter into operating power just as the water boatman (a bug). The robot’s engine is based on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) which enables the robot to swim. Researchers from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory developed the 3D-printed Row-bot for environmental clean-up operations such as harmful algal bloom, oil spills or monitoring the impact of (natural or man-made) environmental catastrophes. Next-level-recycling like in the movie WALL·E can be expected with the sorting robot RoCycle which is developed at MIT. Other than classic recycling machines the robot is capable of distinguishing paper, plastic and metal carbage by using pressure sensors. This tactile solution is 85% accurate at detecting in stationary use and 63% when attached to an assembly line. Through cameras and magnets, the researchers aim to optimise recycling to help cleaning Earth.