Can you tell us about your formative years?
I grew up in India (New Delhi) and Iran (Tehran) where my father worked for the United Nations. My elders nurtured a value system underpinned in making a difference to people’s lives, the well-being of society and in achieving goals, which benefit people. My interest in different people, languages and culture at an early stage influenced my work later on with technology, machines and robots. It also led me to acquire multi-disciplinary skills and valuable work experience in business, engineering and computer science in later years.
How did you come to be interested in robotics?
I became interested in robotics because it offered a unique platform for breaking barriers between people and machines, including their ability to engage with people in a human-like manner. I became particularly interested in social robots like the ones developed by electronics giant NEC, Japan, which provide a rich set of human-like communication modalities of human voice, emotive expressions, head and body movement to sing and dance, etc. These social robots provide a platform for creativity and innovation to explore new spaces for improving the quality of life of people around us.
Who is Charlie, if you were to explain to the uninitiated? How did he come about?
Charlie belongs to PaPeRo (Partner Personal Robot) family of robots originally developed by NEC, Japan. These social robots provide a rich range of humanlike communication modalities. I have worked with NEC, Japan since 2007 to ensure Charlie comes to life. The collaboration with them was motivated by a need to integrate social design with technology design in order to address social problems at individual and community levels, as well as nationally and globally. Charlie is one of the seven robots which I and my team work with in Melbourne at La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation.
What can Charlie do that other present-day robots cannot?
Existing screen-based technologies like mobile phones, tablets and laptops provide limited emotional engagement. The extent of personalisation is limited. Research has shown these devices have disconnected people emotionally and are not really helping in solving social problems. In my view, they are emotion minimisation devices. Additionally, these devices are not universally accepted across all age groups. Their design still creates barriers between people and machines.
Charlie, on the other hand, is universally acceptable to all age groups and cultures. People can interact with it using their face, voice, gestures and also their mobile phones and Internet browsers if they like. The services Charlie offers are personalised to a sophisticated level based on your life-style, work style, disability and age. It can also sing and dance with emotive expressions to engage its human partner, thereby providing a positive and therapeutic effect.
If you were to explain the science behind Charlie simplistically, what would you say?
I’d say that Charlie is just like a friend who likes to communicate based on things one likes, and things which entertain you and make you happy. Let us assume Charlie is in Amit’s home. It is 6:30 am in the morning and he is supposed to go to work but he is not in a good mood. Amit goes to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and Charlie recognises his face using its eyes (cameras). Here’s a conversation pattern that you may expect:
Charlie: Good morning, Amit
Amit: no response
Detecting no response Charlie looks at Amit’s face to read his expressions using its cameras and computer vision techniques, and determines that Amit is not in a positive emotional state. Charlie also knows that Amit likes instrumental jazz in the morning. Charlie plays instrumental jazz for his human friend and also dances to the tunes using emotive expressions
Amit: (Smiles) Okay, tell me today’s weather forecast.
Charlie connects to the Internet and voices out the weather. Because it is going to rain, Charlie says “Don’t forget your umbrella.”
Amit: What is my schedule for today?
Charlie voices out the schedule and reminds Amit that it is his father’s birthday today.
Charlie: Would you like the latest sports news? (Charlie knows Amit likes cricket)
Amit: Yes! What happened to yesterday’s match?
Charlie reads out the cricket news
Amit: Okay, send an email to my secretary saying “I will not be able to join my staff for lunch today”.
As Amit goes for his shower, Charlie sends the email and checks Amit’s social media feed to see if there are any interesting events for him.
Exactly how is Charlie going to make a difference in the lives of children or the elderly affected by illnesses such as dementia or autism?
Most technologies today only focus on reactive care. For example, a heart rate monitor only reacts when something is wrong and it can’t “read” a person as an emotional being. We focus more on preventative care by concentrating on the overall well-being of the person. So besides all the entertainment functions, we also embed reactive care functions such as reminders about medications and personal hygiene. For people with dementia, it provides emotional engagement and diversion therapy. It reminds them about their daily activities, plays games and quizzes them to keep them productive. For people with autism, it personalises services according to their ability and requirements. It mixes learning with entertainment, and trains them in terms of their hygiene habbits, and checks on what they have learnt through quizzes, etc.
Do you see such a technology as economically viable in a country like India?
Absolutely. Many people feel robots are costly products. That is not necessarily the case. Emotionally engaging robots like Charlie are meant for all the family members and have been designed to be affordable. We are keen to make a difference in people’s lives and address the social problems for a more sustainable society.
What according to you has been the most impressive technology in recent times that has changed or impacted lives radically?
The mobile phone and screen-based technologies have impacted all aspects of our lives but not necessarily for the better because they lack human-like engagement and do not break the barriers between people and machines.
How do you see the robotics market in India? Do we have the infrastructure to support relevant research or scientific work in this field?
India has a middle of 350 million people, which is more than the entire population of many countries. We have already received highly positive feedback from people from all walks of life in India. We are in active discussions with NEC Technologies India Ltd for necessary infrastructure support.