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.”

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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.

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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.


Magnetic roads: Crashes could be eliminated with cars that stick to the ground

Cars could soon be sticking to the road a lot more after the testing of magnetic roadways by car manufacturer Volvo.

The company has been using magnets embedded in test roads in the aim to be one of the first companies to introduce self-driving cars and also reduce the number of crashes.

It says it could soon be testing the magnets and futuristic roads in real-life traffic as well.

Volvo created a 100m long test track in Sweden and placed a pattern of magnets 200mm below the road’s surface. It then equipped the car with several magnetic field sensors.

Magnetic roads could bring many advantages to drivers and manufacturers. These include being able to position cars on the road in preventative safety system that could help to keep cars on the road.

Magnets could also allow roads to be smaller, with narrower lanes, as self-driving cars could be kept in position.


“Our aim is for the car to be able to handle the driving all by itself. “


Jonas Ekmark, the preventive safety leader at Volvo confirmed the company has been testing the technology.

He said: “The magnets create an invisible ‘railway’ that literally paves the way for a positioning inaccuracy of less than one decimetre. We have tested the technology at a variety of speeds and the results so far are promising.”

“Our aim is for the car to be able to handle the driving all by itself. Accurate, reliable positioning is a necessary prerequisite for a self-driving car.

“It is fully possible to implement autonomous vehicles without changes to the present infrastructure. However, this technology adds interesting possibilities, such as complementing road markings with magnets.”

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Volvo is certainly not the only company to be trying to figure out the best ways to help prevent accidents and for some years now reversing-aid cameras have available in cars.

Recently competitors Toyota filed a patent, published at the beginning of March, which surrounds ‘collision determination’.

There are very few details included in the patent but it does say that a collision determination device involves a radar detection unit which uses radar waves to detect objects around the vehicle.

This will apparently work in tandem with an image based detector and both attempt to prevent collisions.


“ A large-scale implementation of road magnets could very well be part of Sweden’s aim.”


There is still a long way to go until we see magnetic roads replace traditional existing roads, and many barriers that need to be crossed, but Sweden has been working with the car manufacturer say they could implement a large-scale use of them.

Claes Tingvall from the Swedish Transport Administration, who worked with Volvo, said the work has been promising.

He said: “The test results are very interesting, especially when adding the potential for improved safety as well the advantages for the development of self-driving vehicles.

“A large-scale implementation of road magnets could very well be part of Sweden’s aim to pioneer technology that contributes to sustainable mobility.”


Image courtesy of Volvo Cars.