‘The greatest challenge is bringing together all the latest knowledge’

‘The key question in the development of social robots,’ says Vanessa Evers, ‘is this: can a robot respond sensibly and helpfully in situations in which people find themselves, such as overcoming addiction, learning new skills, recognizing and analysing behaviour, or engaging in interaction.’

That said, the development of social robots has reached a fascinating point in its history, says Evers, one of the world's leading scientists in this field. ‘The modules we use to build robots are getting better and better. The latest ones can perform fairly complex operations: planning, navigating, recognizing faces, distinguishing different objects. The new, more flexible materials created with 3D printing add to the possibilities. Basically, we have what it takes to create very cool solutions.’

The biggest challenge, Evers adds, is to bring together all that knowledge and potential. ‘The knowledge we’re taking about is very specialized; it has to come from different scientists from all over the world. There is a lot involved. There are issues like system compatibility and the integration of modules, of course, but we also have to find ways of bringing in the right expertise, finding the best hardware, overcoming culture and language barriers, and generally ensuring the best possible collaboration between all those people.’ 

Zeno combines technology, cartoon characters and socialization

Zeno is one of the most highly developed social robots in the world and the star player in an ambitious project called DE-ENIGMA. De-ENIGMA is a European research programme that started in 2016 and will continue until mid-2019. The goal is to develop artificial intelligence for an existing commercial robot, in this case the robot Zeno, produced by Robokind. Evers and her team are using all their expertise to equip Zeno for supporting children with low-functioning autism (LFA). The main focus is on helping them recognize and express emotion.

‘Our approach combines a number of things that matter to children: technology, cartoon characters – Zeno looks like a cartoon character – and interaction with other people,’ says Evers. ‘Zeno can do a lot of different things: he can recognize and imitate facial expressions, play, respond to what a child says or does and to how it says it. What’s more, he is a learning robot: he is constantly improving his skills in all of those areas.’

The robot has lowered the threshold to socializing and learning

During the DE-ENIGMA project, it has become clear that supervisors who team up with Zeno are more successful in interacting with the target group than those who do not. ‘The robot really lowers the threshold for these children to socialize and learn,’ comments Evers. ‘It is a highly versatile accessory for users.’ She adds that the project is producing a lot of highly valuable data for further research. ‘Because we record Zeno’s interaction with children on video, we’re learning a lot more about their language, body language and facial expressions. We’re going to make the database available to others, too, such as doctors dealing with this target group.’

The fact that Zeno helps caregivers do a better job rather than replacing them makes the DE-ENIGMA programme extra fascinating, says Evers. ‘People are often concerned that robots will take over human tasks and interaction between people. Zeno promotes interaction between people – among a group that would otherwise have far less interaction. With Zeno, supervisors can carry out their work more effectively and children can learn social behaviour in an easy , fun way. In my view, that is exactly what social robots are meant for: facilitating important but difficult human tasks.’

prof.dr. V. Evers (Vanessa)
Professor of Human Media Interaction, University of Twente Scientific director of the DesignLab, University of Twente Studied Information Systems at the University of Amsterdam and the Open University, United Kingdom Areas of focus: interaction between people and autonomous agents, such as robots or machine learning systems, cultural aspects of the interaction between people and computers.

'I believe technology is one of the engines of society. However, technology is not polite, does not take into account the nuances of human behaviour or our feelings. I was annoyed by that fact fairly early on in life, for example, by those user-unfriendly video recorders we used to have that either failed to record the programme you wanted them to record or recorded the wrong one. What I want is to make the technology more human, to teach it manners. Socially skilled robots combine important functionalities with pleasant handling and ease of use. I am committed to that.’

Foto: Eric Brinkhorst