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Using Smiles (and Frowns) to Teach Robots How to Behave

Japanese researchers are using a wireless headband that detects smiles and frowns to coach robots how to do tasks

2 min read
Using Smiles (and Frowns) to Teach Robots How to Behave

Naughty robots can now be tamed with this snazzy smile-detecting device from the University of Tsukuba AI Lab. Anna Gruebler and her colleagues have developed a wireless headband that captures electromyographic (EMG) signals from the side of the face, detecting when you're smiling with delight or frowning with disapproval.

Unlike cameras with smile-detection algorithms, this device can work in low light, while you're walking around, and when you're not looking into your computer's camera. Part of the charm, the researchers say, comes from the discreet headband design that beats traditional face electrodes and wires.

Last year, Gruebler proposed the device to control avatars on Second Life in a hands-free way, as in the explanation video below. More users would approach her avatar, she says, because it was smiling and looked friendly.

Their current version supports smile and frown detection at a success rate of over 97 percent and has been used to train a Nao humanoid robot in real-time, as shown in this video released at the 2011 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots, in Bled, Slovenia, last week:

The trainer tries to teach the robot her preference: Give the ball or throw it. Although the Nao starts out slow and hesitant, it speeds up after acquiring experience and feedback from the trainer. Their study compared it to using a manual interface: While users made mistakes using a dial, they never confused smiling and frowning -- a natural, intuitive way to interact with a robot.

The main idea, the researchers say, is that it's similar to how parents teach and encourage babies.

The next step is to apply the device to other real-life situations. If you could train a robot with a smile or frown, what would you have it do?

Angelica Lim is a graduate student at the Okuno and Ogata Speech Media Processing Group at Kyoto University, Japan.

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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