If you think robots are heartless piles of plastic and silicon, you're correct. But soccer-playing humanoid robot Nao has been evolving by developing "emotions" under a European project and is now being used in the U.S. in sessions to treat autistic children.
Under the recently concluded Feelix Growing project--aimed at designing bots that can detect and respond to human emotional cues--researchers at the University of Hertfordshire's Adaptive Systems Group and other centers have been trying to get Nao to simulate human emotions.
Researcher Lola Canamero and colleagues have been programming Nao--created by Aldebaran Robotics and used worldwide as a research bot--based on how human and chimpanzee infants interact with others. Working with a budget of some $3.2 million, the researchers have been trying to create robots that can be better companions for people.
In a gushing report, the Daily Mail has hailed Nao as "the first robot capable of developing emotions and forming bonds with humans."
Robot fans who remember Sony's robot dog Aibo, discontinued in 2006, will recall that it had a range of synthetic emotions and could "grow" emotionally according to how it interacted with its owner.
It's no surprise that the researchers have also been experimenting with Aibo, including the cyberpup and Nao in a "robot nursery" designed to incubate emotional behaviors. Nao can so far express excitement, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, and pride, and supposedly has the "emotional skills" of a 1-year-old child.
Using its facial-recognition skills, Nao can become attached to people who help it learn, just like a human infant. When confronted with an unfamiliar situation, or when neglected by its human caregiver, Nao can become agitated. It will remember past experiences it interprets as positive or negative.
The Feelix Growing project concluded in May, involving eight universities and robotics firms including Aldebaran. Some researchers working with Nao see the robot as acting as a companion for elderly people, while others believe it can help kids with learning disabilities.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut's Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP) have begun using Nao with autistic children, and early results are intriguing.
"Children with autism spectrum disorder typically feel more comfortable with robots than with other people initially, because robot interactions are simpler and more predictable and the children are in control of the social interaction," CHIP researcher Anjana Bhat was quoted as saying in a release.
Nao's nascent emotional intelligence bodes well for its career on the soccer pitch--after all, it's the official platform for the standard league in RoboCup, the biggest robotics competition around.
If nothing else, Nao's new emotions might help it become the best faker on the pitch.