All posts by Lucy Ingham

Why Robots Need Faces: the Rise of Service Robotics

Roboticists have been putting faces on robots for a long time, but it’s only recently that scientists have started to understand how beneficial this is, according to Plymouth University professor of cognitive systems and robotics Tony Belpaeme.

Speaking at the RE.WORK AI & Robotics Innovation Forum in London today, Belpaeme explained how faces on robots are not just cute, but actually serve an important function.

People connect with robots far more easily if they can anthropomorphise them, which is going to become particularly important as robots enter more and more service roles.

“Faces are necessary [for robots in service roles],” said Belpaeme. “Without them, they are seen as less positive and less trustworthy.”


At present the majority of robots are in roles that do not require human interaction, such as manufacturing. However Belpaeme sees significant potential for robots in roles where interaction with humans is paramount.

One area where robots could make a real difference is education.

The benefits of one-to-one tutoring are significant: Belpaeme referenced Bloom’s 2 sigma problem – the observation that children who are privately tutored perform two standard deviations better than those who are only taught in classroom sessions, which is equivalent to being above 98% of children taught conventionally.

But although this is known it has never been acted on because of the costs involved: private tutoring is just too expensive to provide on a large scale. However, robots could bring tutoring to all children at an affordable cost.

Undoubtedly some sceptics will question the effectiveness of robot tutors, and there is research going on at present to assess this. One such project is the EU-based Emote project, which is researching the use of empathy-based robotic tutors (pictured above).

However, there is already some evidence to show the benefits of robots as tutors. Belpaeme cited a study where onscreen learning was assessed and compared on its own, with an onscreen robot and with a physical robot providing tutoring. The physical robot was found to be much better than the onscreen robot, suggesting that a suitably friendly-feeling robot could provide an acceptable alternative to a real-life tutor.


Education isn’t the only area where robots with faces can play a role. Baxter, a manufacturing and factory robot manufactured by Rethink Robotics (pictured at the top), has been given a face to make him intuitive to use, with a variety of expressions making his operation common-sense.

Elsewhere anthropomorphic robots have been used for health purposes. They show significant promise in “compliance” roles, such as encouraging patients to stick to specific diets, and have been found to be beneficial for autistic children.

A particularly remarkable example that Belpaeme discussed was the case of an eight year old boy undergoing rehabilitation after a severe stroke. Having shown very limited response to therapy, the boy was introduced to a NAO robot (the same type use by the Emote project), which practitioners used to conduct his physiotherapy.

The NAO robot demonstrated the physical exercises that the boy emulated, and just six days later he had recovered enough to be discharged from hospital.

Featured image courtesy of Rethink Robotics.

First body image courtesy of Emote.

Second body image courtesy of Aldebaran Robotics.

Bacteria-grown bricks could be the building blocks of future cities

Traditional clay bricks could soon be a thing of the past. Biotech startup bioMASON has developed a remarkable method of growing bricks just using sand, bacteria and nutrients.

The company is currently in the process of rapidly scaling production so that companies in Europe, the US and the Middle East can start building with its bricks.

The “grown” bricks offer significant improvements over their clay cousins: they take less than a week to form in ambient temperatures, and use a material that is not only abundant but which can also be extracted from waste materials.

By contrast, clay bricks are responsible for 800 million tonnes of CO₂ thanks to their intensive firing process, which often involves using non-renewables such as coal to heat a brick-firing kiln to 2000°C (3600 Fahrenheit).


The “grown” bricks were invented by bioMASON CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier, an architect-turned-scientist who developed the technology from the guest bedroom of her apartment in the United Arab Emirates, where she was working as an assistant professor of architecture at the American University of Sharjah.

Dosier, who taught herself chemistry, biology and materials science to undertake the project, said the development process was a long one when she spoke at TEDxWWF last year.

“It took years and many, many, many mistakes to be able to grow a strong, durable, full-scale brick,” she said. “I made mistakes and things went terribly wrong.

“For example I made a brick that would hold its shape but would dissolve underwater – not good in areas with lots of rain.”

However, her efforts have certainly been rewarded. bioMASON won the 2013 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge in 2013, which bagged the company €500,000 ($700,000) for further development, and has just completed a ten-day mini startup accelerator programme for green technologies arranged by Netherlands-based Rockstart Accelerator and DOEN foundation .

The brick development was inspired by shells and corals, which naturally use a similar process to form the biocement that makes up their structures.

This is a form of biomimicry, where scientists, engineers and inventors look to nature to find solutions to technological challenges.

The method has been used for centuries, with most notable example of biomimetic design being Velcro, which mimics the way certain seed pods attach to clothing and the coats of animals.

However, biomimetics has become particularly popular recently, and is behind many of the most exciting innovations in recent years, such as superhydrophobic surfaces, the lung-on-a-chip and 3D printed tissue.

Images courtesy of bioMASON.