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Inside the 'Magic Lab' where robots learn how to manipulate our emotions

George Nott | July 5, 2017
Researchers are giving bots human-like social abilities to help them live and work among us

Magic Lab for robots

Two severed robot heads are sat on the shelf, their eyes, as ever, glassy and lifeless. The scalp-plate of one has been removed, exposing a circuit board brain.

Professor Mary-Anne Williams’ is perched on the edge of the desk opposite, beneath a row of books on computer science, German philosopher Immanuel Kant, logic and comparative psychology.

She looks out through glass panels onto UTS’ Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory, the so-called ‘Magic Lab’, which is filled with robots of varying shapes and sizes, their plastic exoskeletons in every shade between beige and brilliant-white.

Some of the bots are bug-eyed and cutesy, with coloured lights that frame their features. Others are naked and dismembered, with mechanical innards on show. One has another in a chokehold.

Williams jumps up.

“Sorry but someone’s got the PR2 strangling another robot!” she laughs. “I’m sure they do this just to get my attention!”

The researchers’ prank makes a point, and one they’ve been busy working to advance. For robots to fully realise their usefulness, Williams says, they will need to grab our attention and gain our sympathy.

But to do so, they’ll first need to develop new forms of intelligence.



Developments in artificial intelligence have to date been focused on problem solving. From mastering the game of Go to finding patterns to predicting mortality from medical scans, AI has excelled at determining solutions to complex tasks.

But if intelligent systems are to exist alongside humans in the physical world they’ll need a different skill set.

“You need emotional intelligence, which is a system having self-awareness and understanding its impact on others; other agents, other people, other robots, other tech that can detect them. And then you have social intelligence: interactions, cooperation, convincing humans to help the robot do things that it can’t do alone,” Williams explains.

Take, for example, a simple mail delivery robot that carries the day’s post from an office reception to the various recipients.

“We have that tech today. But some of the behaviours of such a robot are just inappropriate,” Williams tells CIO Australia.

“It has a letter for you and it's taking the letter to your office or pigeonhole and it passes right past you in the corridor and you’re off having coffee with somebody. If that was a person you would find that fairly unforgivable. It’s not a friendly thing to do…A robot that can only solve problems but has no emotional intelligence – they’re behaving like a classical psychopath.”

With social skills, even simple bots become a lot more useful. A vacuum cleaner bot for example, would have the intelligence required to convince children to pick up their toys with a game, so it can clean the carpet.


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