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A WASEDA Miscellany

Massimiliano ZECCA, Ph.D.

Research on Emotional Humanoid Robotics: a good excuse to study yourself

Massimiliano ZECCA, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Robotics ICSEP - International Center for Science and Engineering Programs School of Creative Science and Engineering Faculty of Science and Engineering

One of the oldest dreams of mankind has been the creation of an artificial being similar to the human. We can trace this dream all the way back to 2000 BC, with the ancient legend of Cadmus who sowed dragon's teeth in the ground, from which there sprang a race of fierce armed men, called Spartes. Moving from legend to history, the Mechanical Clock of the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy (1351) is considered the earliest automata documented in Europe. But it is only during the XVIII and XIX centuries, though, that the technology was sufficiently advanced to develop several practical examples of automatic machines, in particular for entertainment.

In Europe, unfortunately, these machines started to be seen as a threat to humankind, as testified for example by the novel "Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus", synonymous with the theme of a robot or monster advancing beyond its creator, or by the Jewish myth of the Golem - which incidentally can be considered as a modern robot, being it made of high tech metals and silicon chips (soil), activated by programs (incantations). From that moment on, the vision of robots in the Western culture has always been somehow negative.

In Japan, the development of technology proceeded almost in the same way as in Europe, with the development of several arts and techniques, including the Karakuri Ningyo, together with the diffusion of theoretical textbooks and "do it by yourself" manuals (in particular during the Edo Period (1603-1868) - "the Japanese Reinassance"). Unlike in Europe, this technology was always very positively accepted and welcomed. This positive attitude made it possible for the research on Humanoid Robotics to begin. Prof. Ichiro Kato and his colleagues of Waseda University, in fact, started the WABOT Project in 1970 and presented WABOT-1, which is the first full-scale human-like robot, in 1973.

Since then, the research on personal robotics spread worldwide, and several robots have been developed to investigate the socio-emotional aspects of human-robot interactions. These robots range from animaloid robots like the therapeutic robot PARO which interact with human beings and make them feel emotional attachment, to humanoid robots like Waseda WE series and KOBIAN to explore socio-emotive face-to-face interactions with people to explore face-to-face interactions (but the whole list could be much longer).

Although the immediate, practical application of these robots seems to be almost non-existent, besides making the headlines at each new experiment, these researches are extremely important for our society. Why?

From the engineering point of view, by endowing robots with the ability to express and understand emotions and gestures, we can improve the interaction between humans and robots; robotics emotions can also improve the organization of autonomous behavior in robots, making the latter more useful in real applications. Eventually, these researches create a lot of fundamental technologies that can be easily applied in other fields, and also nurture many talented engineers and scientists. On the other hand, from the scientific viewpoint, the modeling of emotions in autonomous robots can contribute towards improving the knowledge on the generation and understanding of emotions and consciousness in human beings in general. It could also help in studying neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's and Huntington's, or developmental disorders, such as autism by using expressive/emotional robots and robotic devices.

If you think of the human being as an extreme and exquisite example of robotic system, you can easily imagine that its observation and analysis could lead to the clarification of the basic mechanisms underlying human's control of their bodies. This, in turn, is an extremely important and helpful tool for the aging society in order to realize better health-care systems, human-support devices, teleoperation methods, and so on. Research on humanoid robotics, therefore, is just a different way of saying that it is a research done by humans investigating on humans to better understand humans themselves. Research on humanoid robotics, therefore, is basically just a good excuse to study and understand your own self.

Playing with Gundam.(ガンダムで遊ぶ)