Can You Teach a Robot a New Trick

Robots have grown increasingly popular more and more as people are becoming more dependent on technology and machine to do their work for them. It´s a fascinating subject that has got Cambridge researchers studying the relationship between human and robot. It is now common to hear of robots even managing the same tasks we as humans perform.

Today, robots are now carrying shelves on their backs, weighing above 1,000 kg, in the Amazon warehouses since 2014. From a business perspective, it is proven to be a more productive idea as the robots are taking over allowing less human error and much more time efficiency.

The process is rather simple. A customer places an order and one of the robots automatically goes to the shelf that stores the item and retrieves it. The shelf is then literally picked up by the robot where the item is then removed and placed in bins. The packing of the item is then ready for shipment to the customer. From this entire process, the only thing hard is the actual taking of the item into its appropriate bins.

Dubbed as the “last meter” dilemma, Dr Fumiya Lida says “Orders received can range from books to pillows or to a bicycle or even a hat. It´s easy for a human to perform the task of picking up an item and not drop it because we just naturally know how much force is required to do it. But for robots it does not come as an instinct,” Lida says.

Finding solutions to these last metre issues is one of the primary goals for Lida´s Cambridge Department of Engineering lab. An example includes one of the annual competitions called the Picking Challenge on Amazon.  Top university teams specializing in robotics from around the world work to attempt at solving this issue by try8ing to create robots that are able to surpass this problem easily. British Airways also face a similar dilemma with their baggage handling, which is a completely automated process. Although in this case the shape weight and size of the suitcases need to be considered before being put on the aircrafts.

Now since the last couple of summers, they are working with G´s Growers to design and create robots that can harvest fruits and vegetables without them getting crushed.

Lida says, “This last metre issue is actually very interesting. Many things we actually do in life are considered last metre problems so it’s at the front of the line when it comes to robotics and this is now the only barrier before robots being the ultimate help for humanity.”

It´s an attractive idea for robots to perform all our daily tasks from cooking and cleaning but we still have a way to go to reach that goal. Lida adds, “In areas such as medicine, agriculture, logistics and security, robots are becoming more prevalent in replacing humans but they can´t be in every place at the same time instantly.”

He also proposes the question of how we as humans will be able to interact with the robots when they become increasingly visible in our everyday lives and how will they respond to us? From the Cambridge´s Department of Computer Science and Technology, Dr Hatice Gunes and his funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, recently completed a project of three years into this robot-human interaction, uniting aspects of machine, computer vision, performance, public engagement, and psychology.

She says, “Personality is the key to determine the relationships between individual but robots cannot detect human emotions. The challenge is being able to tackle this issue and improve the interaction between human and robot.”

Her project focuses more on the artificial intelligence for emotions, therefore focusing on robots that can express some emotion as well as read peoples cues and respond accordingly. Techniques in computer vision are being developed by her team to help the robots in recognizing the different emotions expressed as well as more micro-expressions and even program them to be extroverted or introverted.

Humans have found it harder to interact with robots in public saying that their ability to listen and follow directions effectively. Gunes adds, “The success of the interaction is highly dependent on both robot and human and it all depends on the task as it is the actual task that brings out our personality traits. It’s much more interesting just observing the interaction. She is now focusing more towards engaging the robots to interact with VR technology for coaching, wellbeing apps, elderly care and cognitive training.

Ethic will always be an issue when it comes to using robots to perform human tasks. Now robots who create inventions are being designed which turns into a legislative issue on who ends up taking the credit for the invention. According to Professor Huw Price, a philosopher at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, it will be quite a while before robots start to take legal rights.

“We can compare robots with the likes of cats of being mindless creatures and not really feeling the emotions of shame, affection, and guilt. They are good at faking emotions, yet still have the life of a teddy bear and a toaster, which can come later on but for now, it’s important to focus on making machines that are recognized as authentic emotions. Although it will still pose ethical debate.

Lida says, “The question is, can a robot learn ethics? That will then lead us into discussing the nature and fabric of our consciousness. But they are questions that are worth mentioning, nevertheless.”


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