In Star Trek Next Generation the android Data is on the constant search for techniques that make him more human. His creator, Dr Soong, has made him look human, if a little pale, but what the particular techniques and what the particular rationale of actions are that would make him human, he has to explore and find out by living with human beings.
Yesterday, I spend some time at the Computer Laboratory in Cambridge where a group of scientists conducts research with human-looking robots. I was invited by Dr Laurel Riek – congratulations, Laurel, on passing the viva early in the week! – to give a short talk and then have a look at the humanoid robots she has been working with over the past few years.
The robots are realistic looking busts that are equipped with a complex system of motors underneath their skulls. They have been created by a US-American company called Hanson Robotics.
Laurel used Charles and other robots of a similar kind for her research on natural human-robot interaction. Drawing on the growing body of studies concerned with social interaction, including gesture studies, the study of emotion and such like, she strives to improve the communication techniques of robots in order to enable their use in interaction with humans, in particular people in need of help, such as the elderly and disabled people.
Whilst in Star Trek Data discovers the human world by interacting within it, I found in my short encounter with Charles that human-robot interaction may provide us with resources to learn about ourselves and our actions. I think this is something Laurel is working towards when confronting people in healthcare settings with humanoid robots. Thereby, Laurel addresses current debates about how to improve the lives of those living alone or in care homes by deploying robots as companions or at least as other beings they can talk to and interact with.
Publications by Laurel Riek can be found here:
I found her paper “Cooperative Gestures: Effective Signaling for Humanoid Robots” very interesting but the papers on emotional displays in human-android interaction, I suppose, are where Laurel’s interest lies these days.