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Talking Robot Boxes at Norwegian Hospital a Hit with Sick Kids 

The robot WALL-E in the animated science fiction film of that name was a waste collector with a personality, which helped audiences relate to him. Today, talking work robots are endearing themselves to humans. (Credit:Getty Images) 

By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor  

The “Automated Guided Vehicles” at St. Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim, Norway, have personalities. The boxes talk. 

These motorized units, essentially boxes on wheels, are assigned to transport garbage, medical equipment or food from one part of the hospital to another. But because they have to interact with humans, such as by warning them to get out of the way, they have to talk.  

But instead of using a generic Norwegian voice, the hospital robot developers decided to give them a voice that uses the strong, distinctive local dialect, according to an account in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 

And in so doing, the developers gave the stainless-steel boxes rolling around the hospital to transport goods, a personality. And they made the robots kind of pushy, a little rude. 

Children with illnesses who were being treated in the wards began to play games with them, trying to find and identify them. One parent with a gravely ill child found solace in the robots’ endless, somewhat mindless battles as they unsuccessfully ordered inanimate objects—like walls—to get out of the way. 

In a new study, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) examined how the robots came to be seen as friendly, animal-like creatures and why that matters. 

Roger A. Søraa, researcher, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

“We found that these robots, which were not created to be social robots, were actually given social qualities by the humans relating to them,” stated Roger A. Søraa, a researcher at NTNU’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture and Department of Neuromedicine and Movement Science, and first author of the new study. “We tend to anthropomorphize technologies like robots—giving them humanlike personalities—so we can put them into a context that we’re more comfortable with.” 

St. Olav’s decided in 2006 to buy 21 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) from Swisslog Healthcare, to do moving work, such as food from the cafeteria to different hospital units, or clean linens to nursing stations. St. Olav’s was the first hospital in Scandinavia to adopt the technology.  

“These are types of jobs that can often be dull, dirty, or dangerous, or what we call 3-D jobs,” Søraa stated. “These are jobs that humans don’t necessarily want to do or like to do. And those are the jobs we are seeing becoming robotized or digitalized the fastest.” 

When the talking robot encounters the talking elevator, things get interesting. The AGV is programmed to take over the elevator, politely asking humans to “please use another elevator” when it is onboard. But the elevator voices are female and speak in a very polite, standard dialect. The contrast between the polite elevators and the more burly, sometimes rude AGVs with the local dialect, is funny, Søraa observed.  

“We found that the use of the local dialect really gave the robots more of a personality,” he stated. “And people often like to give non-living things human qualities to fit them within existing social frameworks.”  

LionsBot Cleaning Robots Tell Jokes 

A Singapore-based robotics company that makes cleaning robots for commercial, industrial, and public spaces, has imbued them with a sense of humor.  

LionsBot is using AI within its LionsOS software it calls Active AI, for managing deployment, scheduling, monitoring and mapping.    

A video demonstration of the “janitorial joke droid” was recently posted to Facebook by the UK’s Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, which plans on leasing two of the LionsBot cleaners for their pediatric war in Kent, England, according to an account in The New York Post. In the clip, a cleaning bot named Ella is seen telling jokes to infirm children during a trial run.

“The Earth’s rotation really makes my day” quips the machine. In another clip, the cleaning machine Ella says to a child, “How do trees access the internet? They log on.” For added effect, the “cybernetic comic squints her blue LED eyes and wobbles her head to insinuate mirth as a playful giggle emanates from her speaker,” the Post reported. 

Sarah Gray, the Trust’s assistant general manager for facilities, said Ella “put a smile on the faces of some of our youngest patients” with her routine.  

Ella’s delivery might sound robotic, but this “riotous roomba” had social media in stitches as well. “My 7 year old laughed his head off at that joke! Great work, Ella!” wrote one fan on Facebook, the Post reported. Others compared the joke-bot to Eve, the girlfriend of the titular character from “Wall-E.”  

Animatronic Columbia University Robot Mimics Human Facial Expressions 

A team at Columbia University is combining AI and advanced robotics to have a robot mimic human facial expressions. The device uses animatronics, defined as a multidisciplinary field combining puppetry, anatomy, and mechatronics, which are most often seen in theme park attractions.  

“The ability to generate intelligent and generalizable facial expressions is essential for building human-like social robots,” state the researchers on their website, according to an account in Forbes. The goal was to develop a robot that would train itself in how to react to human facial expressions. The team designed a physical animatronic robotic face with soft skin, tied to a vision-based self-supervised learning framework for mimicking human facial expressions.   

The researchers recently released a video to demonstrate the capabilities of the robot they call Eva. It uses a generative model to create a synthesized image of the face, which can then output motor actions to create the expression in the soft-skin robot face. The team is led by Boyuan Chen, a PhD student in computer science.  

Dr. Sai Balasubramanian, physician, focused on healthcare, digital innovation and policy

“This technology is potentially a massive step into the healthcare artificial intelligence and robotics space,” stated the author of the Forbes account, Dr. Sai Balasubramanian, a physician focused on the intersections of healthcare, digital innovation and policy. “If this learning algorithm can be perfected to not only mimic human emotions, but rather also respond to them appropriately, it may potentially be a novel, yet controversial, addition to the realm of healthcare innovation” he stated. 

For example, social robots have the potential to counter the detrimental effects of social isolation and loneliness, especially among the elderly, in what is called “robo therapy.” The American Psychological Association states, “Socially assistive robots could provide companionship to lonely seniors” and augment the practice of trained professionals.  

Read the source article and information in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studiesin The New York Post and in Forbes. 

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