The science behind “Robot and Frank”


Many of you may have seen the new Robot and Frank movie that came out last week. If you haven’t then go and see it (as soon as you finish reading this post of course). It is fantastic! A moving and sometimes hilarious story about an old man forming a relationship with his robot carer. It got me thinking, can we really form that kind of a relationship with a machine? It turns out we interact with them a lot more than I thought.

I had no idea that robots were being considered for teaching children with learning difficulties until I saw this article on Science Daily. I’ll admit at first I was taken aback. Surely its not healthy for children to be interacting with an emotionless machine, autistic or otherwise? Are there not perfectly good therapists that can perform that job much better? So I started reading around the subject and delved deeper. Just this month a new scheme has been implemented to use 2 foot tall humanoid robots to increase the attention span of autistic children. It is crucial to concentrate on this area between the ages of 2 and 5 because once their attention has been improved all other forms of learning is made much easier. The robot can be left to its own devises and sense if a child has lost interest. They can reinforce their points with body gestures and even shout out their name.

They set up an experiment and it was found that autistic children actually spent more time looking at the robot than a human therapist. Now people have jump to the conclusion that this may mean they will be more effective at teaching them. I don’t completely buy into this. I think if I was a 3 year old and got presented for the first time with a strange little man with no face and a weird voice  I would pay more attention to it as well. It may just be the novelty of it that keeps them engaged so a longer term study needs to be conducted. Nevertheless it is fascinating! It is also the more cost effective option. Apparently raising a child with autism is 4 to 6 times more expensive than a raising one without because of costs including therapist bills. Anything that will alleviate stress from the families has got to be a good thing.

There have been some less promising developments in this area as well. Some researchers have in the past tried to make artificial skin to make the robots look more human… with quite frankly absolutely horrifying consequences. Here is a photo of their attempt:

WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!! It looks like its gonna come alive in the middle of the night and stab me like Chucky the demonic doll from the movie Child’s Play! Thank God this research from 2007 doesn’t seem to have been followed up.

But teaching isn’t the only field where robots show promise. Robots also have the ability to learn themselves (just like in Robot and Frank). Researchers in France have been trying to develop robots that can have cues “imprinted on them” in the same way a baby bird will have the sight of it’s mother imprinted on it within the early stages of its life. They are also aiming to add a camera and audio sensor to it so it can analyse a human’s facial expression or tone of voice to detect our emotional state and therefore help us feel at ease.

There has been further advances with the development of language in 2012 with the iCub Robot. With no preset information, the robot can begin to form words within just five minutes of a conversation with a human. It is thought it learns in a similar way to how children learn to speak. Note however the robot is only mimicking rather than imitating, that is to say it doesn’t understand the meaning of the words or have any use for them (for more on this see my post about animal culture).

But with all of this advancing technology comes a more sinister implication. We’ve all see the terminator films right? As awesome as these films are certain people actually think some kind of robot take over could occur in the future. Check out this wikipedia article on the ” cybernetic revolution”:

It does get you thinking. Moore’s law states that technology roughly doubles in capability every 2 years. With robots learning language and being able to read facial expressions, would it not be possible for them to out grow their creators? Most researchers deny that any kind of revolution could occur because any intelligent robot would be programmed not be aggressive. This wouldn’t however stop a terrorist from programming to be aggressive. Furthermore with all this extra intelligence could they not learn to override their programming?

I realize I may be starting to sound like a crazed conspiracy theorist so I’ll leave it to the professionals. Below is a very interesting debate on the subject between world class researchers:

Bottom line is I think this technology is brilliant and stay tuned for more, because this is certainly an area I would class as sexy science.


2 responses to “The science behind “Robot and Frank”

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