“The adventure of life is to learn” — this was once said by the writer William Arthur Ward, and while maybe not everyone would agree on the adventure aspect, learning new things is a key part of life. Just like any other industry, it’s necessary for the education industry to continue to innovate and be open to new methods of learning — not only to keep students engaged, but also to cater for unexpected circumstances like the current COVID-19 situation, where many students find themselves studying remotely while schools and universities are closed. At Furhat Robotics, we believe that social robots are part of transforming the future education landscape!

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Being robot enthusiasts, it comes natural for us to be excited about the idea of social robots to enhance education and learning — but we are not the only ones! According to Research & Market, the educational robot market is estimated to reach USD 1,689 million by 2023, and specifically the adoption of humanoid robots is expected to grow fast. Deployment of robots are already taking place in educational systems out in the world, with kindergarten up to grade 12 being in focus. …


A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with closed borders and holiday plans revised into staycations, it is painfully evident that the tourism sector has been severely affected by the crisis. Global tourism has previously been on the rise, with close to 1.5 billion tourist arrivals in 2019, and although the drop in 2020 is thankfully believed to be temporary it is clear that travelling and tourism will look different in the post-pandemic world. Can social robots be part of the solution?

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Being curious about the topic, not only from a social robotics perspective, but also as an international group with a love of travelling, the team here at Furhat Robotics started to think about how social robots could alleviate the travel situation. Through our partnership with Deutsche Bahn, we are already exploring how social robots can guide travellers at international transportation hubs in various languages and in an efficient, yet friendly way. Although it was not designed with COVID-19 restrictions in mind, unexpected benefits are the no-touch solution as well as reducing the otherwise significant exposure to new people for a human worker. …


Loneliness and social isolation among the general population is swiftly becoming a pandemic of its own during this period of huge uncertainty. During a time when human contact is limited, healthcare practitioners are looking for new and innovative methods of engaging those struggling during these times. In this blog, we’re looking at how social robots can be a solution that will combat loneliness, and provide value beyond the post-COVID era.

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The loneliness pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused shockwaves across the world due to the lockdowns and imposed restrictions on life as we knew it. At the time of writing in October 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) states there have been nearly 36 million cases, resulting in over 1 million deaths. The fight in the immediacy is to slow the spread of the virus, however there is another major problem that healthcare practitioners are battling, that cannot be cured with a vaccine: social isolation.

Social contact with others, which we are well aware promotes positive mental health, has been taken away from us in the blink of an eye. We know from previous pandemics (SARS, Influenza) that restrictions in society have detrimental impacts on people’s sense of belonging, worth and place within social groups. TIME states that in the US alone, 35.7 million Americans live solo, meaning very limited social contact for potentially months on end. A report published by the National Academies of Sciences found that social isolation and loneliness in older adults resulted in a “ 59 percent increased risk of functional decline”, a “ 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia”, along with a consistent relationship to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. As Vox reminds us, human beings are social animals that evolved to feel safest in groups, and as a result, we experience isolation as a physical state of emergency. …


The fact that healthcare providers are under high pressure, suffering from a global shortage of medical staff, should not be news to anyone. Earlier this year, WHO estimated that an additional 18 million healthcare workers will be needed by 2030, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic making it painfully clear that we are in desperate need of more skilled (and healthy) healthcare workers. So, how can social robots reduce the workload on over-stretched healthcare providers?

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Spending our days thinking about and building robots, it is natural for us at Furhat Robotics to consider what social robots could do for healthcare, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and the new “normal” that will sooner or later arrive. We have already done exciting work on PETRA (Prescreening Experience Through Robot Assessment) together with global pharmaceutical giant Merck, exploring how a robot can increase awareness and early detection of common, yet underdiagnosed, diseases.

But what about relieving the situation within hospitals and especially at primary or urgent care, where patients walk in unscheduled seeking help, comfort and attention, whereas the medical staff are under high workload? …


What are social robots and how will they affect our society? In times of rapid technological advancements, with robots supporting us both with practical and emotional tasks throughout the COVID-19 crisis, that’s a very valid question to ask oneself. How do we define a social robot? What should it look like and be able to do? How does a social robot interact with people? Where do they belong in society and how do they help us?

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To help us answer these questions, let’s look back in history a little because dreams and stories of robots have been around for centuries. Already in 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci designed the Robotic Knight aimed for the battlefield and since the late 1860’s robots have started to appear in literature and movies. Many people have grown up watching the adventures of R2D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars, Rosie the robot in The Jetsons, or more recently Ava in Ex Machina. These robots are often portrayed with unrealistic capabilities and “intelligence” compared to where technology is today, sometimes causing unnecessary worry among the general public. Having said that, you have very likely already come across conversational AI such as Siri or Alexa, that already help you in your day to day life. …


A social robot with proper visual articulation will allow us to suspend our disbelief for longer. Yes, of course we logically know that it is merely a machine, but if it looks and acts coherently like a character, we will still allow ourselves to be immersed in non-verbal interaction.

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Face-to-face spoken interaction is arguably the most fundamental and efficient form of human communication, difficult to replace with anything else. In today’s world, we can satisfy many of our pure information transactional needs using touch screens and keyboards — or indeed by voice. Currently, we see a surge in voice-based technologies deployed on smart speakers, in cars and on our mobile phones. Disembodied voice assistants work well for short query and command/control style interactions, but in more complex or demanding scenarios (education, elderly care, simulation, training and entertainment) these simple voice-only interactions will fall short.

Similarly, there are certain conversations that we would rather have face-to-face rather than over the phone or via email. Not even video is good enough in many cases — we still often prefer to meet someone face-to-face, if we have the possibility to do so. Why is this? Information-wise, it is perfectly possible to express everything in text form, isn’t it? The main reason is of course that a lot of the information in face-to-face interaction is non-verbal, i.e. anything that we don’t express using words but rather by gestures, facial expressions and eye gaze, intonation and so on. These tell us about attitude, emotion and attention. They help regulate the taking of turns in a dialogue or in a group conversation. They contribute to the engagement, intimacy, attention and robustness in the interaction. …


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Interaction with a social robot like Furhat is inherently different from interaction with a voice assistant. The difference is similar to that between talking to someone face-to-face in the same room compared to a phone conversation. Most people prefer the former. In fact, we are willing to travel long distances and pay a lot of money to be able to have physical meetings. One way of describing this difference is that physical meetings (either with a human or a robot) are situated. …


You are designing a social robot interaction. You are fighting against the monotone intonation of speech synthesis, against latency in the speech recognition and against the very narrow conversational path you have to lead your users down because “real” AI does not exist yet. How can you avoid your interaction being experienced as slow and flat? How do you make it come to life?

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One major part is to figure out who your main interactive agent is. It is easy to make this field blank. You might not even have thought about it, it is plainly “a social robot”. Nothing more.

If your robot is a 2-dimensional, undefined character — a conversation with it will feel flat and uninteresting

Imagine having a conversation with a human who has done nothing, seen nothing, wants nothing and has no particular views on anything. About as fun as having to rugby tackle an angry, drunken football player who has four friends and a running chainsaw.

During a conversation we are collecting everything someone is saying and slowly forming a coherent understanding about who they are. An image of our interests, life experience, what we care about, what we are thinking about is slowly revealed pixel by pixel during interaction. Like downloading a jpg on an early 90’s modem. Of course we often interpret wrong so the image might not be accurate. Again like a jpg on an early 90’s modem. But we are creating a picture. …


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Social robots (like Furhat) provide a new way of interacting with machines, similar to how we interact with each other face-to-face. Unlike voice assistants, social robots can look you in the eyes, greet you with a smile, and create that sense of presence that we value in physical meetings. Social robots can be used for many tasks where we typically talk to each other, such as serving in a reception, interviewing job candidates, or teaching children. However, we are not yet at the point where you can simply instruct the robot how to do these things, in the same way you would instruct a human. Instead, we have to program specific applications, or what we call skills, for these tasks. …


For a robot to interact socially with human beings, it indeed must be able to not only detect, but also understand human faces and what they represent. Here is a glimpse into how we make this possible.

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Humans are hard-wired to see faces, and we frequently do. Even when they are not there — a phenomenon known as pareidolia. Photo by Luis Ricardo Ramos. Creative Commons.

Humans have evolved over millions of years as social beings. This evolution has equipped us with, among other things, an astounding capability of processing and understanding the faces of other humans. In fact, our brains have dedicated neural pathways for detecting faces. We are so programmed to do this that we quite often see “faces” also when they are not there — in everyday inanimate objects, in the clouds or in nature.

Humans are also very good at inferring where another person is looking — in particular if we are the target of their attention. In fact, there is a finely calibrated gaze detection system, with dedicated neurons that fire when we make eye contact with another person. We are also highly skilled at identifying people based on their facial appearance. It’s easy to tell from a face that someone is familiar to us (a person in our “herd”), even if we don’t remember their name or the exact context where we have seen them before. …

About

Furhat Robotics

Furhat Robotics is a Stockholm-based startup building the world’s most advanced social robotics platform. Visit us at www.furhatrobotics.com.

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