Frank Pollick: One day we will play football with robots

From a talk given by the University of Glasgow psychology lecturer at the British Association Festival of Science
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The Independent Online

The capabilities of humanoid robots are rapidly expanding. This provides challenges both for the design of these new capabilities as well as study of the psychology of interaction between humans and humanoids The field of humanoid robots is rapidly developing and holds the potential in the next few years to see the general availability of walking, talking humanoids with large degrees of sensorimotor and social intelligence.

Toy stores already contain the first generation of these humanoids and robo-pets. In the coming years the capabilities and uses of these devices is likely to grow considerably.

Throughout the ages, mankind has had a fascination with devices which give the illusion of life and animacy. As technology has become more advanced so have these automata, and modern media is littered with animatronic wonders doing anything from scaring us, to cheerfully selling us the beechwood-aged king of beers [Budweiser]. Not only has advancing technology brought us more sophisticated automata, but it presently appears on the verge of evolving new species of automata; These new devices are a fusion of the spirit of lifelike animatronics with the functional utility of conventional industrial robots, and their development has gone hand in hand with a growth in the understanding of our own human psychological functions and abilities.

For an entity to be animate it must have a physical presence which exhibits intelligence and an ability to learn from interactions with the world.

Intelligence, though slippery to define, can be divided into smaller pieces where although a precise definition remains elusive, one can more easily outline what it is used for. Two types of intelligence are particularly relevant – sensorimotor intelligence and social intelligence. Sensorimotor intelligence involves using the sense organs (eyes, ears, etc) to understand the state of the world and, based upon one's goals, to form a motor response that achieves the goal. Examples of this sensorimotor intelligence can be seen in the RoboCup world football league where teams of robots compete against one another. Each of these robo-players must isolate the ball from the wealth of other visual information and plan a movement to kick the ball in the proper direction.

Social intelligence relates to our ability to use emotion and motivation to guide our interactions with other social agents in the world. The ability to sense social cues is vital for survival but any sort of mechanistic understanding of it in humans is in the early stages and thus there is limited opportunity to see it in humanoid robots.

However, the ability for humanoids to transmit social signals is a goal currently being pursued in humanoids by the development of artificial faces that express emotion. An example of how these issues are addressed in humanoid heads can be seen by examination of various head projects around the world and in particular, Kismet at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab which has developed around the principles of social cues and joint attention.

Though it is not difficult to dream of futuristic applications for humanoids, it is difficult to predict which ones will flourish in the near future. Applications of humanoids already exist in entertainment, and in sports, the sponsors of RoboCup dream of fielding a team to compete with humans by the year 2050.

Applications as tour guides and nurses aides are already being explored. For applications where humans will interact face-to-face with humanoids, issues of social intelligence will have to be considered as both the human and humanoid will bring expectations to the interaction. The matching of these expectations are ultimately going to impact the acceptance of these new devices. Their study promises to be an exciting new area of psychology.