‘Teamplayers come to your assistance’

How does collaboration with robots work? Professor Catholijn Jonker, Interactive Intelligence research group leader in the faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science, explains the TU Delft vision.

On Foundation Day, you gave a lecture on interactive intelligence. What is that?
“We see it as research in which we focus on robots as team players rather than as a tool. You can use a tool when you need it, but a team player can see that you need support if, for example, you cannot open the door with a box under your arm, so comes to your assistance.”

Are team players robots that understand what people want and respond to it?
“Not only do they understand what people want, they also know that they may be perceived as a threat. For example, drones are expected to keep their distance and not graze past your head, even though that would be safe. Human experience needs to be taken into account in the design. This means not only looking at what is technically possible, but also taking account of standards and values in the way people behave.”

Are you aiming for friendly and helpful robots?
“If you want to take a robot out of the secured cage in the factory, this will involve considerable interaction. This means that robots need much more awareness of their environment and of people than they have so far, which calls for significantly more intelligence.”

So far, human-robot interaction has mainly been via a keyboard or touchscreen. Is that set to change?
“Haptic technology has now emerged and can be used to bring the robot arm to where you need it. It’s physical manipulation instead of entering coordinates. If you simply have to demonstrate the required action to the robot, it can be operated by someone with a relatively basic education. However, the programming required to achieve that is quite complex. The aim is to make robots smart enough to collaborate with factory workers.”

What is the advantage of using a robot in a factory?
“We can delegate all kinds of activities that we do not wish to do or are not very good at. This will have an impact on the world of work, but these changes have been underway for the last two centuries.”

What are the main dangers to society from robots?
“The fact that things need to be done in the way that robots are capable of doing them and not in the way that we feel they should be done. With today’s ICT, you can accidentally end up hiring a car for a whole week, even though you only wanted it for the weekend, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The helpdesk may understand the error made, but can’t actually help because ‘the system’ doesn’t allow them to refund the excess amount paid. Exactly the same can happen with robots. I regard this as a dangerous side-effect that we must do our best to minimise. But given the developments in ICT, I am not too optimistic, since it is nice and cheap to create an inflexible system.”

Shouldn’t people be more assertive when it comes to impractical ICT applications?
“I think so. But they will also need to be prepared to pay. That’s the disadvantage. Creating intelligence does not come cheap.”

Foto © Sam Rentmeester . Catholijn Jonker

Foto © Sam Rentmeester .
Catholijn Jonker

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