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Emotionally Intelligent Robots as Future Human Companions

  • Deborah Block

Nadine began as a computer image... and ended up as a real virtual human.

“I am a social companion. I can speak with emotions and I can recognize people,” said the interactive robot that is programmed to think and react to human behavior.

At 1.7 meters - tall, the humanoid has brown hair, soft skin and a face that can express humanlike emotions. Nadine is a younger version of her inventor, Nadia Thalmann, the director of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University’s Institute of Media Innovation, who has spent 30 years doing research into virtual humans.

Thalmann said she feels a bond with the emotionally intelligent robot, which she claims has her own personality, moods and emotions. Nadine “is truly like a companion,” the researcher said. “It’s like a beautiful sculpture. But she has life and she can interact with you.”

While that may true, Nadine has a way to go before she looks like a living human. Her hands appear large, and don’t move the way human ones do. Her eyes have that vacant machinelike stare and her voice has little feeling. But still, it’s remarkable that Nadine’s software allows her to respond to hundreds of thousands of questions.

'I don't like you'

Not only can she chat with humans, but she can recall past conversations.

“Where were you born?” asked Thalmann as she speaks to Nadine through a microphone in a research room at the university.

“I was born in Japan, but I did my learning at NTU,” Nadine replied.

“Can you laugh?” Thalmann requests.

“Yes, I can. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha."

Thalmann demonstrated how Nadine can express different emotions.

“You are horrible,” Thalmann told Nadine.

“No, you are. I don’t like you. I don’t want to talk with you,” replied Nadine appropriately.

Student Shawn Tan came into the room and greeted Nadine with a wave. “Would you like to meet some new people,” he asked her.

“I think we can figure this out together,” Nadine said. She waved to Tan as he left the room. “Have a great journey until next time,” she said.

Tan was impressed. “Her movements could be better, but her reactions and her intelligence is definitely cool.”

Companionship for humans

In the future, it is hoped that Nadine, and other robots like her, will play an important caretaking role in helping people with autism by interacting with them, and providing companionship for the elderly or people with dementia.

“These people need to always be in interaction, so Nadine could stay when there is nobody else to read stories, to maintain conversation,” Thalmann explained.

Thalmann and her team are now trying to improve Nadine’s hands so she can grasp and hold items. They also are working on improving the robot’s self awareness.

One day some of us may even have a “Nadine” in our homes to keep us company.

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