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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.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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