Big Thinking, Innovation

Social Robots, Collaboration and a Seal named Paro

At mwah. we love nothing more than sharing new and different thinking, and creating a space for broader dialogue and debate about what the future could look like, if it was designed to work for all of us.

In the work we do, we are lucky enough to connect with forward thinkers who want to be a part of making things better. These are people with different voices, different experiences, and different ways of coming at the world, who challenge existing narratives and add extra dimensions into the way the future could look. Belinda Dunstan is one of these forward thinkers.

An Associate Lecturer and PhD Candidate at UNSW, Belinda is one of Australia’s leading thinkers on social and creative robotics (and is an all-round kick-arse human being).  With a background in fine arts and sculpture, Belinda has leveraged her life-long fascination with humans, and her deep knowledge of form and movement, into the rapidly evolving field of social robotics.

After hearing Belinda speak at the 2017 TedX UNSW event, we have been obsessed with learning more about her work and sharing this with the mwah. community. We hope this adds yet another layer to our collective thinking about what the future could look like.

Here are some highlights from our recent discussion with Belinda.

Starting from a different base

A degree in Fine Arts and Honours in Sculpture is probably not the background you would expect a leading academic in Social Robotics to have, but this is where Belinda started from.

After first becoming interested in the robotic form within her sculpture work, Belinda soon saw an opportunity to use her design skills in shaping the future form, and creating a more authentic connection between robots and the humans using them.

“Coming from a different background than many of my colleagues has actually been a big advantage in the collaboration and creative process. In the first 6 months of my PhD program I felt a little uncomfortable that I didn’t have the same knowledge as my peers in robotics, and spent a lot of my time studying computer science, to try to understand the work they did. I soon realised this wasn’t a great use of my energy. My peers had their expertise and I had mine. We ALL didn’t need to have every answer – as long as the group had the expertise somewhere we could use this knowledge to work in a diverse and innovative way. This allowed us to collaborate deeply and iterate quickly”.

The story of Social Robots

 A Social Robot is an autonomous embodied agent that is designed specifically to interact with humans. Instead of being designed for a pure mechanical/process output, Social Robots are designed to communicate with people and mirror human behaviour.

“The usual design process for in industrial robotics is to start with an application in mind (e.g. laying bricks), then move to designing the software, then hardware and then finally, at the very end of the process, designing the exterior and appearance of the robot.

This often results in a very mechanised movement, and an appearance that may not work in a human environment. This approach leaves it to the humans interacting with the robots to adapt to the technology, rather than the other way around.

The new design process we are using at UNSW for the design of Social Robots flips this approach on its head.  

In social robotics we want to start the design by thinking about the movement of the object and getting the appearance right. The way the robot moves creates a sense of character and emotion, and essentially allows the object to speak for itself and suggest an application it may be best used for”.

Allowing for nuance

While this may sound counter intuitive to the seemingly straight forward ‘problem to solution’ approach most Engineers use, this style of design allows for nuances in human behaviour to be incorporated into the design of social robotics, so that interactions with people and the environments they work within are more seamless and natural.

“Using the bricklaying example, a standard approach to robotic design would see the object move in a quite structured way. Minimal variation, maximum efficiency with each individual step.

If you contrast this to the way a human lays bricks, ‘robotic’ movements look completely out of context. Watching an experienced Bricklayer work is like watching an artistic performance. Continuous fluid movements, each building on the momentum of the last, working seamlessly with team mates and quickly resulting in a structure being built.  If we could design a robot that could mimic this fluid way of working, then the quality of the human-robot connection and the collective work rate is likely to increase (as will the adoption of this kind of technology)”.

This approach to design changes the focus from humans ‘calling’ and robots simply ‘responding’, and creates a context where humans and robots can more intuitively work together.

Interaction with Humans

 “Humans naturally anthropomorphise and want to connect with the things that move around us. You see this in even basic service robots like the Roomba’s (the automatic household vacuum cleaners). A recent survey showed that 80% of people who owned a Roomba had given it a name and had formed some kind of emotional connection with their vacuum”.

Does this mean that our interactions with robotics could take over our human interactions? Quite simply put – No.

“People are not looking replace human relationships with robotic ones. All of our interactions exist in a hierarchy – for example, some people in our life we hug when we see them. Others we high five or nod at as we walk past – family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Robotic interaction falls into the same hierarchy – we want some connection with the object, but not as a replacement for other forms of human connection”.

 Social Robotics in Practice

“Social Robots are not new and have been used around the world for some years. In Japan, you will routinely come across robotic museum guides, teachers and care workers. In Denmark, there is even a robotic chocolate dessert chef who creates decorative patterns on plates, which the human dessert chefs respond to and build bespoke desserts around”.

One of the most heart-warming examples of a Social Robot with a mainstream application is Paro the Seal. A therapeutic robot, this adorable, white fluffy seal is routinely in use across Japan and Europe in aged care and hospital settings to interact and engage with patients. Paro reacts to touch, sound and light, and learns how to best interact with the individual holding him. The results – reduced patient and caregiver stress and increased patient purpose, relaxation and motivation.

Workplace Partnership with Robotics

Much of the current dialogue around robotics and AI in business pitches automation as direct and full replacement for human labour and effort. While this may be the case in some areas, Belinda has a positive outlook for the future and believes there is great upside for people with robotics becoming more and more part of our everyday life. 

“We need to start by acknowledging the different strengths and capabilities of both humans and robots.

Humans are amazing at skills like empathy and creativity. Robots are incredible at performing repetitious work and completing complex algorithms.

By introducing robots into the workforce as a partner, it allows human capacity to be better used for things like higher order thinking, and ultimately allows people to be doing the ‘most human’ work possible.

 A great example. In Japan,  Social Robots are routinely used in care. In a simple nursing home example, robots and nurses work together doing what they each do best to support their patients – the robot is used to lift the patient out of their bed (removing the strain and risk of injury to the nurse), while the nurse holds the patients hand and provide comfort, like only another person can”.

Collaboration Lessons and Application for Business

Beyond her focus on Social Robotics, much of Belinda’s academic work focusses on collaboration, and the lessons to the learned in a ‘human’ setting.

Here at the top three take-aways that Belinda believes we can all use in our team and business settings;

(1) Get collaboration more natural and authentic

‘Collaboration’ is something that can become quite unnaturally contrived in a business setting. Most of us collaborate in ‘our normal lives’ incredibly well without even thinking, but for some reason, when we get into a ‘work’ setting, we lose our intuitive approach and look for rules, structure and certainty to govern the interaction. The result? Slow processes, fear of failure and lost opportunities.  

“A great example of everyday collaboration is a group of people in a room packing up chairs. If you walk into a room and others around you are packing up chairs, you don’t wait for instructions or a role to be given to you. Instead, you simply look around the room, use your past experience and trust your intuition and just get involved. If you put a chair in the wrong place, a team member will quickly and kindly let you know, and the group continues to work in alignment together, getting the job done quickly and naturally.

 There is a great opportunity to change the frame for collaboration in business from the current ‘call and respond’ approach (like in traditional robotics), to a more natural and intuitive process, where work is generative, and then iterated quickly”.

What does it take to get this right? Trust. An acceptance that mistakes will happen, and a confidence that they can be addressed and resolved.

(2) The benefits of a multidisciplinary approach

The value different perspectives can add to thinking can never be underestimated. In the design of Social Robots, Belinda’s understanding of how objects express meaning through movement has added another dimension to the purely engineering based mindset of many of her colleagues.

“All views and inputs are important and equally contribute to the overall design of an object. By incorporating the broadest base of views and ideas as early as possible in the design process, you can flesh out and identify opportunities early that can be built in and iterated along the way, as opposed to trying squished different views in at the end of the process (which generally doesn’t work)”.

 This is a lesson that can be taken straight into a business context. So often we engage a team of similar ‘specialists’ to tackle of problem, and then wonder why the same ideas and outcomes result.  By embracing the different skills, expertise and mindsets of people in your business, and then finding a great way to capture and incorporate these into the early design and creation of work – you are better placed to achieve more diverse thinking and ultimately better ideas and solutions.

(3) Valuing your own uniqueness

“For a multidisciplinary approach to really work, everyone on the team needs to own their uniqueness, different skills and thinking. This means being comfortable with not knowing every single thing there is to know on a topic, but to truly own your expertise and point of view, and ensure this is represented in a way that is understood by the group, and adds to the discussion.

While this can be a little uncomfortable at first, this approach credits everyone’s area of expertise, and allows for designs and outcomes to emerge quite rapidly through the incorporation of the widest possible base of thinking”.

We hope you enjoyed learning more about Social Robotics and opportunities for better collaboration within teams and business. Thank you to Belinda for being so generous and sharing her thoughts with the mwah. community.

Questions, thoughts or challenges? Get involved in continuing the conversation via the comments section below.

Sonja Ankucic

Energiser | Ideator | Friend

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