Robotics and AI are expect­ed to deal with many of the glob­al chal­lenges that we are fac­ing. Poverty, inter­na­tion­al con­flict, health prob­lems. And this means that they will leave the fac­to­ry floors and that they will come into the envi­ron­ments where we are most, in our homes, in our streets, in our schools, and in our hospitals.

And older woman and two children seated at a backyard table

Here’s an exam­ple of a typ­i­cal envi­ron­ment. And these envi­ron­ments are social. We are social ani­mals by nature, and we inter­act social­ly, and we obey social rules all the time. It tells us what is nor­mal” and it tells us how to behave. So if we take this tech­nol­o­gy and put it in these envi­ron­ments, this tech­nol­o­gy will stand out if it does­n’t com­ply, if it does­n’t have social intelligence.

And when we are not social­ly intel­li­gent, we are seen as rude, or threat­en­ing, and peo­ple real­ly don’t like us. And that is the same when you use tech­nol­o­gy and put it in environments. 

Here’s an exam­ple of how we made com­put­ers more social­ly intel­li­gent, because how can we make com­put­ers empathize. It’s a feed­ing robot that helps par­a­lyzed peo­ple to eat. And we made actu­al­ly quite a sim­ple mod­ule that lis­tens to the con­ver­sa­tion at the table and then offers the food at nat­ur­al inter­vals dur­ing the din­ner, which allows a per­son to com­plete­ly par­tic­i­pate in the rit­u­al that din­ing togeth­er is.

So, we can do for sim­ple things. But what about more com­plex social sit­u­a­tions? You can see speed-dating. We made a lot of peo­ple speed-date, and then know­ing the out­comes we could make the com­put­er think about what were the para­me­ters that pre­dict­ed a match. And in this case it was the vari­a­tion in the dis­tance between the two daters. I impart this wis­dom to you. But it shows that we can deal with quite com­plex social situations.

Photo of a woman cradling a baby in her arms next to another of a chimpanzee and baby in a similar position

And the core idea behind mak­ing machines social­ly intel­li­gent is that sen­tient beings need social ref­er­enc­ing to learn. We do this much more, for instance, than chim­panzees. We hold our babies, we look at them, we put them in a chair, and we talk to them, we wave at them, we show them objects. And babies emu­late our behav­ior and they learn. And it’s thought that this social ref­er­enc­ing leads to empa­thy and know­ing the­o­ry of mind, and even enculturation.

Enculturation allows us much more effec­tive­ly, for instance than chim­panzees, to teach chil­dren how to use that the think­ing tools that we all have in our brain very effec­tive­ly. So just to com­pare it takes a chim­panzee child about sev­en years to learn to hit a nut with a rock.

So, social ref­er­enc­ing is so great robots should do it, too. But first there are some tech­ni­cal chal­lenges that we need to solve. For instance, low ener­gy con­sump­tion. Throughout these tech­ni­cal chal­lenges, what these robots real­ly need to do is under­stand the social envi­ron­ment that they are in. 

So, this robot, a SPENCER robot at Schipol air­port, it needs go around a lit­tle fam­i­ly and not dri­ve through them. And here you see the FROG robot. It’s an out­door guide robot, and this robot has to respond nat­u­ral­ly peo­ple. It has to behave nat­u­ral­ly. And you see a blind per­son try­ing to under­stand FROG and FROG try­ing to under­stand the blind per­son. The mod­el that FROG has of it users must also deal with impairments. 

And what hap­pens is when we put these behav­iors into robots, they are eas­i­er to under­stand because they are much more famil­iar. But it also means that they are becom­ing very rich social char­ac­ters. And it may even mean that we empathize with them or maybe even devel­op a social bond with such robots.

This is the EASEL robot, and you can see a boy real­ly engag­ing with this robot even though one of the huge chal­lenges, real­ly these tech­ni­cal chal­lenges that I told you about to get these robots run­ning for long peri­ods of time, a very large chal­lenge, is our own fear. Because we are not quite sure what hap­pens to peo­ple when they start relat­ing to robots, and if they change how they relate to people.

So it’s extreme­ly impor­tant that we design and devel­op these robots to fit the role that they have to do. Here you see a TERESA telep­res­ence robot that elder­ly peo­ple can use to par­tic­i­pate at a dis­tance. So they log into the room from a remote loca­tion. And over time the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence takes over their posi­tion­ing behav­ior so they can focus on socializing.

These robots need to seam­less­ly inte­grate into our envi­ron­ments. But they are huge­ly inte­grat­ed machines them­selves. They need machine learn­ing, com­put­er vision, they need plan­ning, sync­ing, hard­ware manip­u­la­tion, nav­i­ga­tion. So you can’t just build a robot with one dis­ci­pline. You need a lot of dis­ci­plines to come togeth­er to real­ize an opti­mal solution.

There are many appli­ca­tions that we can think of for social robots. You can think of an exoskele­ton that knows where your friends are. You can think of drones that know the dif­fer­ence between civil­ians and sol­diers. A search and res­cue robot that knows when some­one is in pain. A car that knows that you’re dis­tract­ed. A house that knows that some­one does­n’t belong there. 

So while we are all think­ing about what robots can do, we should make robots think about us and what we do. So I’ve showed you that machines can respond and deal with social behav­iors, our social behav­iors, and I’m very inter­est­ed to know how social robot­ics could mean any­thing in your field inter­est or pas­sion. Thanks.

Further Reference

Vanessa Evers’ home page, and her fac­ul­ty pro­file at the University of Twente

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.