Living happily alongside domestic droids is not as simple as it seems they need to learn what we want
AS I walk across the wood-tiled floor of an IKEA-furnished living room, my footsteps appear in real time as shimmering blue footfalls on a computerised map of the room. In one corner, a robot with a single purple eye stands, brooding.
What I'm seeing is the robot's laser-radar view, shown on a nearby laptop, of the obstacles on the floor - and I am just one of those obstacles. This is my first taste of the technology that twelve British volunteers will experience as they live with a selection of domestic robots in a semi-detached house in Hatfield, UK, over the next few months.
These volunteers will be helping roboticists as part of the Living with Robots and Interactive Companions (LIREC) project. It aims to work out how squadrons of robots can be truly useful to people, how they can do so safely, and establish just how many robots people can cope with at any one time. Lead researcher Kirsten Dautenhahn and her colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, also in Hatfield, have an advantage over others attempting to assess domestic robots: they have bought a regular house to ground their research in the realities of domestic life.
Her team comprises psychologist Dag Sverre Syrdal, adaptive systems engineer Kheng Lee Koay and robotics engineers Mohammad Reza Oskoei and Steve Ho. "The high-level aim here is to develop robots that can assist people in their household environment. And particularly help the elderly with fetching and carrying things around, with memory issues - like remembering their medication schedules - and perhaps help them access entertainment," says Koay.
They have populated their house with four robots, two of them wheeled and two four-legged. These comprise a medication scheduling/dispensing robot dubbed Sunflower, built at the University of Hertfordshire, a robot-arm-equipped CareRobot from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and Automation in Stuttgart, Germany, for fetching and carrying food, drink and household items, plus two Sony Aibo robotic dogs for entertainment.
A key idea is that only one robot can be active at a time, to spare human users from the risk of "cognitive overload" if too many robots seek their attention at once. When one finishes a task and another needs to become active, data is wirelessly migrated from one - which enters sleep mode - to another, which wakes up and knows your recent requests.
But does it work? I take a seat and the purple-eyed CareRobot, whose double-jointed robot arm looks like it could throw together a car if you let it, makes its way over to me. It brings me a fruit drink on a tray and, to demonstrate its dexterity, a woolly hat that I must gently pull from its three grasping fingers. It approached me in a wide, sweeping motion so I could see it coming, but in a subsequent meeting it suddenly appeared, startlingly, at my side. I preferred the sweeping motion, but it did block the TV. Such are the behavioural nuances the volunteers will report on.
CareRobot then swishes back to a corner and migrates its brain data to Sunflower, which has an LCD touchscreen for delivering messages and a drawer on its front for delivering medication. It is also wirelessly aware of the house's electrical grid, so it can sense when the kettle is being boiled or the fridge door opened by the telltale current drain measured by a smart meter: both are signals for it to go and see what its human master is up to in the kitchen.
Sunflower trundles over to me and opens its drawer as if it's delivering my medication, then asks me via a message on its screen if I want to send its brain to an Aibo so I can play a game: I press a button to agree. Its head goes limp as it enters sleep mode - and a moment later the Aibo stirs and stands. The transference is spooky.
After playing for a while, I send the dog's brain data back to Sunflower, which promptly heads off because Dautenhahn opened the fridge door to get milk.
The volunteers will decide whether such behaviours are the future of robots in our homes, or if there is still fine-tuning to be done. "We'll see how acceptable people find it and perhaps go back and redesign it. We're just starting to explore these issues," says Dautenhahn.