For the past decade it has been one of the undisputed research success stories of the University: a relatively small team, successful in bidding for multi-million pound grants, leading some of the biggest collaborations in the field, and establishing itself among the most respected peers in the sector.
From ITALK to ALIZ-E, the advancement of robotics at Plymouth has been anything but science fiction.
Now with the creation of a new ‘robot home’ on campus, the work of the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems (CRNS) is entering a new phase. Located on the first floor of the Portland Square Building, it is more than just an academic office with some IKEA furniture: it’s an interdisciplinary hub where an international team of researchers can study human interaction with the University’s ‘robot family’.
“We have had three big waves of multiple project funding to get to this stage,” says Angelo Cangelosi, Professor in Artificial Intelligence and Cognition. “Robot Home could be considered a 2.0 or 3.0 for us because it marks an important change for the way we work. It signals a transformation from independent projects each focusing on a specific topic – such as iCub looking at language acquisition and manipulating objects, or ALIZ-E on social interaction and communication – to having a full-blown experimental setup, a living home for the elderly and robots.”
A great example of this is a new EU Horizon 2020 project focused on supporting independent living through robotic companions. MoveCare: Multiple-actors Virtual Empathic Caregivers for the Elderly is being coordinated in Milan, with Plymouth leading a €440,000 strand on social interaction. Working with Professor Ray Jones, in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, as co-investigator, Angelo welcomes elderly people from a care home in the city to the centre, where they interact with ‘Pepper’, the newest addition to the family, courtesy of Japanese company Softbank.
“We were among the first in Europe to receive a Pepper, and ‘she’ will be at the heart of a number of projects,” Angelo says. “In MoveCare, we will be able to study how people interact with her in a more realistic home-like scenario, rather than a laboratory with white walls. There is a great deal of interest in researching and developing robots to be used as domestic home helps for the elderly and the disabled.”
MoveCare is one of nine current projects, representing an income to the University of around €4 million, and which have some 15 PhD students, and five postdoctoral researchers attached. Among that PhD population are seven funded by the Marie Curie scheme, each working on one of three projects: APRIL, SECURE and DCOMM, covering the topics of personal robotics, safe robot interaction, and communication using gestures, respectively. It is an indication of the importance being placed upon the subject of ‘collaborative intelligence’ – where humans and robots learn from one another to achieve a task.