Enter the maze

When I see you smile

A girl playing chess Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay

When does a machine stop being a toy and become a companion?

The team of researchers, Ginevra Castellano, Iolanda Leite, Ana Paiva, and Peter, wanted to find out how to make robots that behaved less like a mere machine and more like a companion. They thought that such robots would need to be able to understand our emotions and also to behave in a socially intelligent way. They would need not just the kind of intelligence that allows them to play games like chess, but be socially intelligent too.

Playing chess with friends

To find out, as part of the EU funded LIREC project, they ran a series of experiments, getting children to play chess with a game-playing robot. This gave them the basis to build their own, better, robot. They found that to be a really effective playing companion, the robot did need to understand and react to the emotions of the children it played with. They also showed that by observing a child's behaviour when playing games like chess it was actually possible to work out the emotion the child was feeling. Hints to their emotions included not just obvious things like whether they were smiling or not, but also, for example, where they were looking.

Based on their discoveries, the team built a new emotionally-aware robot to play chess with children. By taking into account both the children's behaviour and the state of the game, their robot worked out when the child started to feel unhappy. It then behaved appropriately. For example, when they were sad it might give them help or offer encouragement, just as a supportive friend would. The robot was setting up what is called an 'affective loop' with them: recognising emotions then changing behaviour to match and change those emotions. The primary school children in the experiments thought the robot was much more engaging and helpful when it behaved like this, reacting directly to their emotions. It was becoming more like a true companion.

This research won a special award, judged 10 years after publication, for being seminal research.

Friends for life

Robots of the future, if they are to be true companions, will need to work out our emotions, be sensitive to them, and behave supportively, just as a human friend would. That is much more than developers currently mean when they say their software is user-friendly, but it is what future software must become. Only then will the machines be on the road to switching from being, throw-away, tools and toys, to true, long-term friends and companions.