The two robots Flobi and Nao worked full time for three weeks in an isolation study in Cologne. Scientists from Bielefeld University's Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) were studying how these intelligent assistance systems can help astronauts to keep fit – both physically and mentally. However, it was not just the persons who were on trial, but the robots as well. The scientists were testing both their suitability and their durability. The experiment ended on Saturday. Professor Dr. Franz Kummert, who is running the study together with Professor Dr. Britta Wrede, delivered an initial assessment: 'I am proud of the members of this project – the way they handled the enormous challenges that such a long-term study imposes on the endurance of our robots was just excellent.'
The eight test subjects spent 18 days living closely together in a sealed off area of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne. 'Their living conditions were almost as cramped as those in a Space Shuttle,' said Kummert. Distraction was provided by the two robots Flobi and Nao.
Flobi is a talking robotic head developed at Bielefeld University's Cluster of Excellence on Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). It uses facial expressions to react to a partner by moving its eyes, brows, eyelids, and lips. Researchers at Bielefeld completely reworked the mechanics of its neck, moth, and eyes to make it more robust for the 'SoziRob' project in which the isolation study is embedded. Flobi's task in the study was to stimulate the test subjects mentally by playing several memory games with them every day. The robotic head uses facial expressions to react to the face of its human partner and it turns towards them – something that Flobi can do because it is able to locate the voice of its partner in space and evaluate her or his face visually. Flobi's colleague, the almost 60 centimetre high Nao, can talk, register persons visually, and move its hands, arms, and legs. The robot was responsible for sports training on board the test station. Every day, it trained each of the test subjects for one hour of spinning on the indoor exercise bike. It instructed the test subjects on, for example, how fast they should go, and told them how to perform their exercises.
In case one of the robots broke down during the three weeks, replacement robots were standing by. 'However, none of them had to be used. Flobi and Nao performed reliably,' said Dr. Ingo Lütkebohle who was responsible for planning and implementing the isolation study.
From February to March, the Bielefeld research team had already carried out a control experiment to test what effects the three-week-long isolation would have on persons if they had to train and amuse themselves without attendant robots. 'A first look at the completed questionnaires suggests that training with our robots was more personal and therefore more effective. Naturally, detailed information will be available only after a comprehensive analysis of all the data. However, these preliminary findings strengthen our expectation that robots displaying social behaviour will be accepted as interaction partners,' said Franz Kummert.
The research project 'SoziRob' is being supported by the space agency of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.
The Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) was set up to develop machines that are capable of learning from human beings and their behaviour, of adapting to human beings, and of interacting with them in a flexible way. CoR-Lab brings together scientists from engineering, computer science, neuroscience, and the humanities along with psychology and linguistics. Roughly 70 scientists are working on interdisciplinary projects at CoR-Lab that are exploring how robots can learn cognitive abilities. They are working with humanoid robots such as iCub and NAO as well as with more industrial robot systems. CoR-Lab forms the bridge between basic research and technology transfer.
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