Futurism.com reports that Volkswagen has unveiled a working prototype of a robot that can autonomously charge electric cars. “The Mobile Charging Robot is an adorable squat bot – which, when you get right down to it, is strikingly reminiscent of the R2-D2 droid from ‘Star Wars,’ bleeps and bloops included.” (Futurism.com, 28 December 2020) As a result, the service robot becomes a social robot. This may be a benefit for the video, but whether it is necessary in practice remains to be seen. The basic idea is that the robots move to cars that are parked in large residential complexes – and where there is not necessarily a human in the vicinity (and where therefore no social interaction is needed). But the concept is questionable in other respects as well. A mobile energy storage of this type seems to be inefficient: “basically, you’d have to charge the robot’s battery supply which it then uses to charge electric cars” (Futurism.com, 28 December 2020). Nevertheless, the idea should be pursued. Without a doubt, there are logistical advantages to having a robot drive to and charge cars – fewer charging stations are needed, and you can service two vehicles at once.
The book “Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics” (eds. Marco Nørskov, Johanna Seibt, and Oliver Santiago Quick) was published in December 2020 by IOS Press. From the publisher’s information: “Robophilosophy conferences have been the world’s largest venues for humanities research in and on social robotics. The book at hand presents the proceedings of Robophilosophy Conference 2020: Culturally Sustainable Social Robotics, the fourth event in the international, biennial Robophilosophy Conference Series, which brought together close to 400 participants from 29 countries. The speakers of the conference, whose contributions are collected in this volume, were invited to offer concrete proposals for how the Humanities can help to shape a future where social robotics is guided by the goals of enhancing socio-cultural values rather than by utility alone. The book is divided into 3 parts; Abstracts of Plenaries, which contains 6 plenary sessions; Session Papers, with 44 papers under 8 thematic categories; and Workshops, containing 25 items on 5 selected topics.” (Website IOS Press) Contributors include Robert Sparrow, Alan Winfield, Aimee van Wynsberghe, John Danaher, Johanna Seibt, Marco Nørskov, Peter Remmers, John P. Sullins, and Oliver Bendel.
One year ago, The Robot Report reported that Anki’s little robots might be making a comeback. Digital Dream Labs in Pittsburgh acquired the patents, trademarks, and domain. The start-up company “is planning to revive and manufacture more units of each product in the following order: Overdrive, Cozmo, Vector” (The Robot Report, 26 December 2019). Digital Dream Labs founder H. Jacob Hanchar told The Robot Report “the goal is to have all three products available for purchase for Christmas 2020” (The Robot Report, 26 December 2019). Now it seems that pre-orders of Cozmo 2.0 are possible: “Cozmo is a fun, educational toy robot that you can be used to teach children the basics of coding. Whether he is performing tricks, exploring his environment or teaching coding, Cozmo is always full of personality. Pre-order your new Cozmo today for delivery as early as May 15th.” (Website Digital Dream Labs) Cozmo and his friends belong to the best social robots that the industry has ever produced. What is special about Cozmo is the many emotions it can show (but of course doesn’t have). It also has face recognition and a night vision device. More information at www.digitaldreamlabs.com.
In October 2020 the book “Maschinenliebe” (ed. Oliver Bendel) was published by Springer. The title means “Machine Love”, “Machines for Love” or “Machines of Love”. Three contributions are in English. One of them (“Intimate Relationships with Humanoid Robots”) is by Yuefang Zhou and Martin H. Fischer (University of Potsdam). From the abstract: “The topic of human-robot intimate relationships is not only an intensely emotional one that is present in the mass media because of its ability to stir excitement. The very same topic also requires our understanding of basic mechanisms of the human mind and of social cognition in particular. A scientifically-minded framing of the debate around whether and how we might engage in intimate relationships with humanoid robots in the near future might in turn improve our understanding of human sexuality. Viewed from this angle, intimate human-robot interaction is then merely one of many examples of studying human-machine interactions for the benefit of users and as a means of improving our knowledge about humans and the human mind. In this chapter we will adopt such a stance and discuss both social-cognitive and sexual aspects of this innovative topic, review available empirical evidence and offer some suggestions for further research.” More information via www.springer.com/de/book/9783658298630.
Social robots are robots that come close to animals and humans, interact and communicate with them. They reproduce characteristics of animals and humans in their behavior and appearance. They can be implemented both as hardware robots and as software robots. The SPACE THEA project should have already started in March 2020. Because of COVID-19 it had to be postponed. Now Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel starts with the preparatory work. In spring and summer 2021 the programming of the voicebot is then carried out. SPACE THEA is designed to accompany astronauts to Mars and to show them empathy and emotions. In the best case, she should also be able to provide psychological counseling, for example, based on cases from the literature. The project will use findings from social robotics, but also from machine ethics. The results will be available by autumn 2021.
With Hugvie and Somnox Sleep Robot, researchers and companies has made it clear that it is possible to build simple, soft social robots that have a certain utility and impact. This raises hopes for social robotics, which is currently showing some progress, but is still developing slowly. Materials such as rubber and plastic can be used to make simple, soft social robots. These materials can be combined with existing devices such as smartphones and tablets on which you run certain applications, or with simple sensors and electronic components. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, will first do research on the basics of simple, soft social robots. The work of Hiroshi Ishiguro and Alexis Block (with Katherine J. Kuchenbecker) will be included. Then, examples of implementation forms are mentioned and sketched. Their purpose and benefits are presented, as well as possible areas of application. One example is to be implemented, whereby speech abilities and sounds can be an option as well as vibration and electrical impulses. The reference to applications in the household, in public space or in the commercial sector should be established. The project will start in February 2021.
Social robots and service robots usually have a defined locomotor system, a defined appearance and defined mimic and gestural abilities. This leads, on the one hand, to a certain familiarization effect. On the other hand, the actions of the robots are thus limited, for example in the household or in a shopping mall. Robot enhancement is used to extend and improve social robots and service robots. It changes their appearance and expands their scope. It is possible to apply attachments to the hardware, extend limbs and exchange components. One can pull skin made of silicone over the face or head, making the robots look humanoid. One can also change the software and connect the robot to AI systems – this is already done many times. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, should first present the principles and functional possibilities of robot enhancement. Second, concrete examples should be given and described. One of these examples, e.g., the skin made of silicone, has to be implemented. Robots like Pepper or Atlas would be completely changed by such a skin. They could look uncanny, but also appealing. The project will start in September 2020.
In the first part of the HUGGIE project initiated by Oliver Bendel, two students of the School of Business FHNW conducted an online survey with almost 300 participants. In the management summary of their bachelor thesis Ümmühan Korucu and Leonie Stocker (formerly Leonie Brogle) write: “The results of the survey indicated that people have a positive attitude towards robots in general as robots are perceived as interesting and useful rather than unnecessary and disturbing. However, only a minority of the participants stated that they would accept a hug from a robot. A possible reason for this could be that for the majority of participants, a hug is an act of intimacy with a deeper meaning attached to it which is only being shared with selected persons. For a robot to be perceived as an attractive hugging partner, a human-like design including a face, eyes, a friendly look as well as the ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally is desired. However, an appearance being too realistic has a deterrent effect. Furthermore, an in-depth analysis of the data in relation to age and gender of the participants resulted in the discovery of interesting facts and differences. Overall, the findings contribute to a clearer picture about the appearance and the features Huggie should have in order to be accepted as a hugging counterpart.” The bachelor thesis will be publicly available in autumn 2020. There will also be a paper with the results next year.
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 . 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 . 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 . 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 . 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?
 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
 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
 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
 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
A multi-stage HUGGIE project is currently underway at the School of Business FHNW under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel. Ümmühan Korucu and Leonie Stocker (formerly Leonie Brogle) started with an online survey. The aim was to gain insights into how people of all ages and sexes judge a hug by a robot. In crises and catastrophes involving prolonged isolation, such as the COVID 19 pandemic, proxy hugs of this kind could well play a role. Prisons and longer journeys through space are also possible fields of applications. Nearly 300 people took part in the online survey. The evaluation is almost complete and the results are remarkable. Among other things, it was found that women want to be hugged by a robot that is bigger than them, and men want to be hugged by a robot that is smaller than them. Not only the size is relevant for the acceptance of robotic hugging: “An interesting input given by one of the participants was that it could be more pleasant to hug a robot if it smelled nicely, for example like chocolate.” (Draft of Bachelor Thesis) Whether this is a typically Swiss view remains to be investigated. The results of the survey and the conclusions drawn from them for the design of HUGGIE will be compiled in a paper in the course of the year.