From Cozmo to Moxie

In 2016, the roboticist Maja Matarić founded Embodied, together with Paolo Pirjanian, former CTO of iRobot. In April 2020, the company started accepting preorders for Moxie, its first social robot. “Whereas other companion robots like the household assistant Jibo or Paro the robotic seal are designed for adults or the elderly, Moxie is built to foster social, cognitive, and emotional development in children. These are skills that are typically imparted to kids by their parents, teachers, and other adults, but Pirjanian noticed that many families want some extra help.” (Wired, 30 April 2020) According to the company, weekly themes and missions with Moxie explore human experiences, ideas, and life skills like kindness, empathy, and respect. Showing emotions is an important skill of social robots. SoftBank has created a model example with Pepper. Cozmo by Anki – currently not available – can also show emotions, even a multitude. And both Pepper and Cozmo create emotions in the user. Cozmo and Moxie have something in common, namely an effort of Pixar: “Taking a page from Anki’s Cozmo playbook, the company has enlisted the help of employees from Pixar and Jim Henson to flesh out the real-world robotic character. At first glance, the results are plenty impressive.” (TechCrunch, 4 May 2020)

Online Survey on Hugs by Robots

Embraces by robots are possible if they have two arms, such as Pepper and P-Care, restricted also with one arm. However, the hugs and touches feel different to those made by humans. When one uses warmth and softness, like in the HuggieBot project, the effect improves, but is still not the same. In hugs it is important that another person hugs us (hugging ourselves is totally different), and that this person is in a certain relationship to us. He or she may be strange to us, but there must be trust or desire. Whether this is the case with a robot must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. 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 Brogle started with an online survey that targets the entire German-speaking world. The aim is 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. Click here for the survey (only in German):  ww3.unipark.de/uc/HUGGIE/

Imitating the Agile Locomotion Skills of Four-legged Animals

Imitating the agile locomotion skills of animals has been a longstanding challenge in robotics. Manually-designed controllers have been able to reproduce many complex behaviors, but building such controllers is time-consuming and difficult. According to Xue Bin Peng (Google Research and University of California, Berkeley) and his co-authors, reinforcement learning provides an interesting alternative for automating the manual effort involved in the development of controllers. In their work, they present “an imitation learning system that enables legged robots to learn agile locomotion skills by imitating real-world animals” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). They show “that by leveraging reference motion data, a single learning-based approach is able to automatically synthesize controllers for a diverse repertoire behaviors for legged robots” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). By incorporating sample efficient domain adaptation techniques into the training process, their system “is able to learn adaptive policies in simulation that can then be quickly adapted for real-world deployment” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). For demonstration purposes, the scientists trained “a quadruped robot to perform a variety of agile behaviors ranging from different locomotion gaits to dynamic hops and turns” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020).

SPACE THEA

Space travel includes travel and transport to, through and from space for civil or military purposes. The take-off on earth is usually done with a launch vehicle. The spaceship, like the lander, is manned or unmanned. The target can be the orbit of a celestial body, a satellite, planet or comet. Man has been to the moon several times, now man wants to go to Mars. The astronaut will not greet the robots that are already there as if he or she had been lonely for months. For on the spaceship he or she had been in the best of company. SPACE THEA spoke to him or her every day. When she noticed that he or she had problems, she changed her tone of voice, the voice became softer and happier, and what she said gave the astronaut hope again. How SPACE THEA really sounds and what she should say is the subject of a research project that will start in spring 2021 at the School of Business FHNW. Under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel, a student is developing a voicebot that shows empathy towards an astronaut. The scenario is a proposal that can also be rejected. Maybe in these times it is more important to have a virtual assistant for crises and catastrophes in case one is in isolation or quarantine. However, the project in the fields of social robotics and machine ethics is entitled “THE EMPATHIC ASSISTANT IN SPACE (SPACE THEA)”. The results – including the prototype – will be available by the end of 2021.

The Comeback of Cozmo

According to The Robot Report, 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). The small robots belong to the best that the industry has 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. The future of it and its siblings is not yet clear, as Digital Dream Labs has not purchased “physical assets and inventory” (The Robot Report, 26 December 2019). Fans are waiting and hoping.

How to Improve Robot Hugs

Hugs are very important to many of us. We are embraced by familiar and strange people. When we hug ourselves, it does not have the same effect. And when a robot hugs us, it has no effect at all – or we don’t feel comfortable. But you can change that a bit. Alexis E. Block and Katherine J. Kuchenbecker from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have published a paper on a research project in this field. The purpose of the project was to evaluate human responses to different robot physical characteristics and hugging behaviors. “Analysis of the results showed that people significantly prefer soft, warm hugs over hard, cold hugs. Furthermore, users prefer hugs that physically squeeze them and release immediately when they are ready for the hug to end. Taking part in the experiment also significantly increased positive user opinions of robots and robot use.” (Abstract) The paper “Softness, Warmth, and Responsiveness Improve Robot Hugs” was published in the International Journal of Social Robotics in January 2019 (First Online: 25 October 2018). It is available via link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12369-018-0495-2.

Robots, Empathy and Emotions

“Robots, Empathy and Emotions” – this research project was tendered some time ago. The contract was awarded to a consortium of FHNW, ZHAW and the University of St. Gallen. The applicant, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Schulze from the FHNW School of Applied Psychology, covers the field of psychology. The co-applicant Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel from the FHNW School of Business takes the perspective of information, robot and machine ethics, the co-applicant Prof. Dr. Maria Schubert from the ZHAW that of nursing science. The client TA-SWISS stated on its website: “What influence do robots … have on our society and on the people who interact with them? Are robots perhaps rather snitches than confidants? … What do we expect from these machines or what can we effectively expect from them? Numerous sociological, psychological, economic, philosophical and legal questions related to the present and future use and potential of robots are still open.” (Website TA-SWISS, own translation) The kick-off meeting with a top-class accompanying group took place in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, on 26 June 2019.