Researchers help robots tap into emotions

Empathetic robots are on the horizon thanks to work by researchers at the University of Newcastle.

Australian researchers are working on technology to help robots get in touch with their emotions.

The idea is to create so-called "companion" robots that can analyse their surroundings and match the emotional state of their human pals.

Companion robots are not yet on the market. But as the Australian population ages, they could become an important aid for the elderly, says Aaron Wong, a researcher at the University of Newcastle.

Robots, for example, could help monitor the health of their human companions, freeing up nurses for more important duties.

"The ultimate aim is a robot that can feel like the person, empathise, and understand the person better," he says.

A pilot study with a humanoid robot named DARwIn-OP proved the feasibility of the emotion-sensing software.

A webcam fitted on the robot captured footage of its surroundings at 30 frames-per-second.

The software then analysed aspects such as colour, patterns, and facial expressions, with Wong and his team teaching the robot to connect different environments with certain emotions.

"The robot will learn from its companion," Wong says.

"The companion will press buttons for a while until the robot can learn the emotions he feels in a certain environment."

By doing so, Wong hopes to smooth robots' transition into everyday life. He envisions a future where we go about our daily lives without noticing robots are there.

Many tweaks must be made before that's the case, he says. One goal is to create software that can deduce the emotional impact of certain odours.

And DARwIn-OP will be busy for the next few weeks, representing Australia in Brazil at the robot World Cup.

"We don't run the emotion program while he's playing - he'd never score."

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