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Robots for Social Care

Text: Eilis Kinsella Media: Raquel Kuperus Graphics: Luke Noothout

Emilia Barakova is an Assistant Professor of Socially Intelligent Systems within this faculty with her research centering around social robots. We discussed insights regarding her career, research and the future of robots in social care. Emilia is an expert in the field of embodied social interaction with, and through, technology and particularly focuses on user groups that have special needs or experience social isolation.

Education and Early Work

Emilia completed her PhD in artificial intelligence in Groningen and then went on to do two post-doctoral studies in Japan; one on intelligent robots and the other at the neuroscience institute, also on intelligent robots, however, more biologically motivated. She worked at the research institute in Japan for seven years, stating that “it was an amazing experience as they are very focused and advanced regarding robotics, and their brain-science institute is world-leading. There was an internationally renowned researcher at the institute, therefore, there was a lot of people to learn from”.

She has now been working at our faculty for 12 years, and her research is continually focused on social robots, whilst incorporating interaction design, psychology and technology. She reached her current field through previous work and education in artificial intelligence and cognition, leading to research into robotics and their need for social intelligence. Her work has turned to focus on the intelligence that is required for social robots in different applications, from a human perspective; what is important for the human users’ needs. “When we are aware enough of what is needed for humans then we can move over to understand how artificial intelligence can serve this purpose, not vice-versa. If you go to the computer science department, for example, they invent new intelligent behaviours just because they can, whereas we discover what is needed.”

Societal Applications of Social Robots

She understands that this field will be particularly present and influential in the areas around the care of vulnerable people, such as the elderly; those with special needs and in education. There is also great potential for the use of robots to be used as motivators. “There are many products, these days, that encourage you to be more active, for example, at the beginning they are very effective, however, after time compliance reduces. For example, elderly users often need to be reminded to take their medications and do other healthcare practices, such as being more active. Robots hold the possibility to persuade and motivate you in a very nice way, in most activities where compliance in most difficult, for example, when children don’t want to study.”

“People don’t want enormous robots in their home, it is a large challenge to create fine motor skills in robots, they need to be able to interact with different shaped plates, for example. Presently, robots only have specific intelligence, and it is extremely important that they develop general intelligence, if they are to be a natural introduction to the home. It is a risk when robots are connected to the internet all the time, this can be good or it can be bad. This has become a problem that we already see with all the ‘internet of things’ devices, the solution for this will come before the robots are entering our homes.

“Robots already have a greater presence in the home than many believe, for example, many homes have robots that vacuum the floor or mow the lawn, however, these are not social. A great challenge currently facing social robots is that they cannot hold a ‘normal’ conversation in context. However, at the same time, there are several developments being made in this area, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. These can speak a little bit, and these will be improved further in the future of social robots.”

Social Robots to Provide Special Care

“I work mostly with carrying long-term studies. We create robot behaviours and interaction for children with autism or the elderly. We work on expressive robots –  how robots can express human-like emotions and intentions. We also have a robot persuader – this is needed when someone makes a choice and the robot has to try and persuade them to change their opinion and make another choice. We research what kind of language must be used and what kind of social queues. In the future, we want robots to be helpful to people in social settings, one thing that is needed is for people to be persuaded to do things that they don’t want to do or can’t find time to do”.

“Children with autism don’t have well-developed social skills, we try to identify which skills are best to be developed. For example, they don’t like to make eye contact because they don’t like how much the eyes of the other person moves and changes, this is very tiring for them. So we will not try to force such a child to look at the eyes of others, but to develop strategies to cope with that. Social robots can help them fake eye-contact because if they don’t show the same social behaviours as us, they start to like socially encounters less and less. Robots try and teach them and enhance their social skills. Also, it is important that young children learn how to ask questions and how they can be positive.”

The integration of social robots in the future of society is very interesting and a field that has a lot of fascinating work going on. It combines social, cultural and technical insights to find solutions for some problems that many different groups face in society. Some of the most innovative advancements are happening in our own faculty, among both the professors and PhD students. Emilia Barakova and her associates are pioneers in the field of social robotics; therefore, if you are interested further in this field, you can find inspiration within the faculty.

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