Meet ERWIN: The empathetic robot
Feb. 17, 2014
by Mark Ollig

Well folks, we’re getting closer to the day when we will be commonly interacting with robotic companions, capable of sensing our emotions – and expressing theirs.

Comparable to the androids from our favorite science fiction films, the robots currently being crafted for our future will be cognitive, and emotionally perceptive.

The research and creation of a new, unique, kindhearted robot, has been taking place across the big pond, inside the School of Computer Science, at the University of Lincoln in the UK.

Finding ways, in which authentic, lasting relationships can be established between humans and robots, is the purpose of ERWIN (Emotional Robot with Intelligent Network).

ERWIN is the robotic creation of Dr. John Christopher Murray, who is a senior lecturer at the University’s School of Computer Science.

Murray joined the university in 2009. He is working with robot’s, and their interactions with humans.

One study, underway by the university, wants to determine how a human-robot relationship is affected by the robots “human-like” thought tendencies.

Accumulated data from the robot’s interactions with humans is one area of interest scientists are currently studying.

This experiment isn’t about creating just another robot, devoid of any emotions.

ERWIN is an experiment in creating a robot which will emotionally empathize with its human acquaintance.

Through conversation and observational interaction, it is hoped ERWIN will be able to relate with a person in a compassionate, concerned, and understanding manner.

ERWIN is capable of expressing emotions using its eyebrows and mouth when communicating with a real person. These emotions include being sad, surprised, angry, and happy.

So, a robot is being developed with emotional reactions.

Personally, I feel we would want our robots to be happy.

I hesitate to consider what an enraged robot might be capable of.

Mriganka Biswas, a Ph.D. student at the university, stated how robots are increasingly being used in situations such as rescuing people from debris, assisting during medical surgeries, and for helping the elderly.

I recently read about robots helping doctors perform heart-bypass surgeries at the Mayo Clinic.

“Surgeons conduct robotic surgery using a robotic system, which includes a camera arm and several interactive mechanical arms, with joints that work like a human’s wrist,” states the Mayo Clinic’s website.

To read more about the Mayo Clinic’s use of robotic surgery, see: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-mayo.

Also, the Japanese government is going forward with “nursing home robots” to assist in caring for their growing elderly population.

Here is an interesting article about their nursing home robot plans: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-japan1.

“Based on human interactions and relationships, we will introduce ‘characteristics’ and ‘personalities’ to the robot,” Biswas said about ERWIN.

He also feels it would be easier to design a human-robot relationship once we can explain how “human-to-human long-term relationships begin and develop.”

Biswas said a robot companion must be friendly, and have the capability to distinguish a person’s emotions and needs, in order to act accordingly.

It seems, from everything I have read, these automatons, in the foreseeable future, will eventually become common-place, providing supplemental support for our aging population, assisting in medical procedures, and providing us with companionship.

I can understand the practicality of using empathetic robots in certain situations when human resources are unavailable.

At this time, ERWIN’s face has a very robotic-looking physical appearance.

Here’s a link where you can see a smiling ERWIN: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-erwin.

The University of Lincoln conducts research in the fields of computer vision, robotics, social computing, medical imaging, microchip design, and computer games.

Their blog can be found at: https://socs.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk.

How would I react when first meeting ERWIN? Yours truly would probably begin by mentioning the weather; you know . . . something to start the conversation with.

“We seem to be getting out of this latest cold snap. Wouldn’t you agree, Erwin?”

Of course, the robot would probably first smile at my humble attempt to converse, and come back at me with some algorithmic statement about cold weather patterns, only a computer-networked, empathetic robot would understand.

In the years ahead, (an aging) yours truly might be assigned an empathetic robot to care for him.

With my luck, this robot will have developed some sort of emotional self-centeredness complex – and will instead insist I take care of it.

When considering human companionship versus computerized robotic machines, I recall an original “Star Trek” episode. In it, Mr. Spock is explaining to Dr. McCoy how “computers are more efficient than human beings . . . ” Dr. McCoy quick-wittingly responds: “But tell me – which do you prefer to have around?”

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