Monday, March 27

Nikola, the android ‘boy’ who manages to convey emotions with his face

His nose does not grow when he lies and his creator is not called Gepetto, but RIKEN (an acronym for the Physical and Chemical Research Institute of Japan). This high-tech Pinocchio is called Nikola and, according to its developers, can “successfully” convey six human emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

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Researchers of the Guardian Robot Project they have created this android ‘child’ and have published the details of the process this Wednesday in the magazine Frontiers in Psychology.

Nikola has tested the ability of people – of flesh and blood – to identify six facial expressions generated by the movement of the “muscles” of the android’s face. It is the first time that the quality of the emotion expressed by an automaton has been verified for these six emotions, the authors of the project point out in a press release.

The robot maid Robotina (Rosie, in other latitudes) was considered science fiction when she debuted in the cartoons of ‘The Jetsons’ more than 50 years ago. Currently the reality of the servant robot is more science and less fiction. Providing a service is the purpose and the meaning for which the human being began to create automatons.

In the first century after Christ, the service offered by the automata designed by the Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria was entertainment. The word ‘robot’ was not coined until 1920 by the writer Josef Čapek from the Czech word ‘robota’, which means ‘hard work’ and which, etymologically, is related to the term ‘slave’.

After Nikola’s achievement (transmitting emotions) there are still many challenges to overcome, its creators point out, including being able to detect and express emotions. The recent study led by Wataru Sato has focused on building a humanoid robot, or android, that can use its face to express various emotions.

silent gestures

Inside Nikola’s face are 29 “pneumatic actuators,” mechanisms that convert the energy of compressed air or another gas into mechanical energy. Those actuators control the movements of the android’s artificial muscles. Six other actuators control the movements of the head and eyeball. The entire mechanism works by air pressure, which makes the movements silent and smooth.

The team positioned the actuators based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which has been used extensively to study human pouting and grimacing. Previous research has identified numerous facial action units—such as “cheek lift” and “lip pucker”—that comprise typical emotions such as happiness or disgust. The researchers incorporated these action units into Nikola’s design.

Studies on emotions, especially on how people react to them, have a problem -points out the team that created Nikola-, and that is that it is difficult to carry out a properly controlled experiment with living people interacting.

In the case of this android child, several real people have been able to identify each emotion on the artificial face, indicating that its movements accurately resemble those of a real human, although certainly not all people identified the reactions with the same precision.

“This is because Nikola’s silicone skin is less elastic than real human skin and can’t form wrinkles very well. Thus, emotions such as disgust were more difficult to identify because a wrinkle action unit could not be included in the nose”, its creators point out in the press release.

slow for sadness

“In the short term, androids like Nikola may be important research tools for social psychology or even social neuroscience,” says Sato. The researchers asked people to rate the naturalness of Nikola’s emotions as she systematically monitored the speed of her facial movements. They found that the most natural speed was slower for some emotions, such as sadness, than for others, such as surprise.

Although Nikola does not yet have a body, the ultimate goal of the Guardian Robot Project is to build an android that can assist people, especially those with physical needs, so they can live on their own. “Androids that can emotionally communicate with us will be useful in a wide range of real-life situations, such as caring for the elderly, and can promote human well-being,” says Sato.