Robots in sight (Issue 18, 2009)

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Jackson and Matilda with Professor Rajiv Khosla

Standing a little taller than your average vacuum cleaner, Jackson and Matilda are critical players in global research into advanced intelligent communications robots for the health care industry.

 
To help them interact with their charges and patients, they are ‘evolving’ their ‘emotional’ faculties in a new joint research venture between Melbourne’s La Trobe University and Japan’s Kyoto University, in collaboration with their ‘maker’ – the global electronics giant, NEC Corporation.

Jackson and Matilda are NEC’s PaPeRo – Partner Personal Robots – recently described in an ABC science program, All in the Mind, as the ‘cream’ of the current crop of communication robots.

Jackson and Matilda are at La Trobe University’s new Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation (RECCSI) for the next two years.

The robots can tell jokes, converse, move around, their faces lighting up when they recognise people, and connect to the internet, transmitting images to third parties.

‘We may have become blasé about industrial robots and the exploits of military robotics on the evening news,’ says the Centre’s Director, Professor Rajiv Khosla. However, Professor Khosla concedes the concept of intelligent robots programmed to respond to emotional issues, ‘is something most people still have trouble getting their heads around.’

The establishment of RECCSI on La Trobe University’s Research and Development Park in Bundoora earlier this year aims to take emotionally intelligent computer systems across their next frontier. The Centre – supported by a million dollars in grants and contributions from its partners over the next three years – has its roots in research into context-aware emotion-based systems and conversational informatics by Dr Khosla and Kyoto University’s Professor Toyoaki Nishida.

‘We are attempting to uncover principles of verbal and nonverbal interactions that people engage in everyday as a part of intellectual activities and then develop new technologies to help society derive additional benefits from conversational interactions,’ says Professor Nishida.

The collaboration also provides research internships for La Trobe postgraduate students of three to six month at Kyoto University and NEC in Japan.