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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

With these ‘human’ skills, robots will better be able to make their way in the world by gaining our help, be it by convincing us to provide the information needed to complete a task or simply to open a door for them. They’ll need to grab our focus, manipulate us into assisting them, earn our trust and trigger our sympathy.

“It’s a lot about persuasion. And in order to persuade you need to engage, you need to communicate what the problem is for which you need help,” Williams says.


Robots, IRL

Robotics has been an area of research at UTS since 2002. Pioneers of the past are still in residence, like Smokey, a robotic polar bear bust that is programmed to get ‘aroused’ at the colour red and also plays the bongos. [The name is not for its white fur, but because it has twice caught fire, Williams explains.]

Adding a social aspect to the technology, however, is relatively new.

“Social robots will touch absolutely every industry,” Williams predicts. “In the home, in the workplace. They’re a disruptive tech that’s going to be inexpensive and do everything. Social robots are not just automated problem solvers, they have emotional and social intelligence that allows them to collaborate with people in safe, fluent and enjoyable ways to enhance the human experience.”

There’s no better way to test hypotheses of human-robot interaction then by sending robots out into the real world, Williams explains. Last year Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and real estate giant Stockland, took delivery of Chip – a model REEM from Spain’s PAL Robotics – working with UTS and researchers from the Australian Technology Network of Universities to find out how people interact with the bot in a retail setting.

UTS recently became home to two humanoid Pepper robots from industry partner, Softbank Robotics. Later this month UTS will be taking the Peppers to the RoboCup@Home Social Robot League competition in Japan.

The team – the only one from Australia to qualify in the category – includes members with specialisms like human-robot interaction, robot emotions and robot cooperation.

A workshop with CBA and Softbank in August will explore the relationships people build with robots in different contexts: like would you want your home assistant bot to have the same personality and knowledge of your habits as the bot in your shopping trolley?

Steve 'The Woz' Wozniak with UTS' PR2 robot
Steve 'The Woz' Wozniak with UTS' PR2 robot.

“You don’t want to spend your whole life sharing your preferences with all the tech. We’ve got to find this balance of managing privacy and the intrusion into you and your life, and delivering a service you want, that improves you experience as a person living out your life at home, as the customer of a business, and when you’re out and about in public,” Williams says.


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