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My Robot Companion

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University of Hertfordshire

"My Robot Companion" is an ongoing art/science project created by Anna Dumitriu and Alex May, artists in residence in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire, working in collaboration with Professor Bruce Christianson, Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn and Dr Michael Walters. The project explores some of the Adaptive Systems Group’s research into social robotics and asks the questions; do we want and need robot companions? And, if so, what kinds of robot companions do we, as a society, want?

The project aimed to widen public debate in the issues of social robotics with a particular focus on the EU funded LIREC project which investigated what it would be like to live with robots as companions for humans. A particular issue for the science team was what robot companions should look like: much creative thinking was needed to get a picture of what the wider public wanted. The project worked with the artists in residence to create a strategy for bringing creative and arts audiences into the debate, and they developed a series of heads for robot companions: some digital and interactive, and some more ‘traditional’. These were commissioned for The Science Gallery in Dublin and exhibited using a research robot body as the project progressed. The artists also participated in audience discussions, gave talks on the project and ideas behind it and importantly led participatory workshops (for all ages) to enable people to design a head for their own robot companion. As the artists found new areas of investigation stemming from being embedded in the research setting, they built their own robot for the purpose of developing the ideas further, looking at robotic movement and social interaction with humanoid robots. This was built in close collaboration with the robotics research team and with a strong focus on finding out how arts audiences feel about emerging robotic technologies.

The team developed a humanoid robotic art installation for exhibition in art gallery settings. The robot has interchangeable heads, including one that changes appearance by slowly morphing its face into a composite of the facial features of up to sixteen nearby viewers, using digital technologies. The work has been shown in several high profile galleries including the V & A Museum. The work reached 80,000 exhibition visitors. The team also led ‘design your own robot companion’ workshops to enable deeper discussion and audience participation. The work focusses on raising public debate around a number of ethical issues in contemporary robotics, and uses art and performance techniques to intervene within the scientific research process itself, to widen the impact and reach of research to arts/media audiences.

The main purpose of the project is to raise awareness of contemporary issues in social robotics and the ethics of robotics by enabling non-science audiences to interact and be in close physical proximity (sometimes even contact) with a humanoid robot and to create a significant artwork that would attract wide attention. The arts perspective enables audiences to focus on their emotional and aesthetic responses to the work and the situation that the work placed them in. It also enabled the robotics team to collect data in response to the question “what should robots look like?”. In particular it enabled the collection of a vast data set of audience feedback and views at the Science Gallery (over 3,000 surveys were completed as well as a mass of sensor data about how people interacted with the robot).