January 3, 2014 3:32 pm

Science: Can humans get on with robots?

Friendly humanoids are part of a research project looking at how people and robots interact in public spaces
Nao robots are among those set to be deployed in public spaces to test human-robot interaction©Ed Alcock

Nao robots are among those set to be deployed in public spaces to test human-robot interaction

If you’re in Bristol or Bath over the next two or three years, watch out: there may be robots about. Don’t worry though – they will be friendly humanoids, part of a research project looking at how people and robots could interact in public spaces.

Six English universities are collaborating on the £2m project, called Being There: Humans and Robots in Public Spaces and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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The underlying aim is to see whether people who cannot visit a particular place – because they are ill, housebound or unable to travel – could make a virtual trip in the proxy form of a robot that feeds the experience back to them.

“Being able to interact with others in public space plays an important role in the wellbeing of individuals and societies,” says Mark Levine of the University of Exeter, the project leader. “Sadly, many people are unable to do this. However, if a robot proxy can act for them – and can transmit back the full experience of being with others – we can help to reduce social isolation and increase civic participation.”

The team will use several different humanoid robots, such as Nao, made by the French company Aldebaran. They will be controlled remotely, with a “tele-operator” seeing through the robot’s eyes and speaking through its mouth, while directing where it looks and how it moves. Later in the project, the robots will be given some autonomy to enable them to interact better with humans.

Initial testing of the interaction between robots and people will take place at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (a partnership between the University of the West of England and Bristol University). Later the robots will go out to public spaces in the area.

The researchers aim to create a “living lab” to test how people interact with the robotic proxies, from their hand gestures to their emotional responses. They will compare the effects of different robots – miniature or life-sized, more or less human in appearance.

Evidence from Japan shows that people feel very uneasy about ultra-realistic humanoids. “They can be very creepy,” says Paul Bremner of the Bristol Robotics Lab. A robot with a less realistic but still broadly human shape, with legs, arms and a face, may be more acceptable.

“An example of how this could eventually be used might be a Nao robot in a museum acting as an avatar – looking round at the exhibits and interacting with other visitors – on behalf of someone who was in another part of the city,” says Bremner. “Developing robots that will be effective in their interactions with humans in different social situations is crucial to the future robotic development that is useful to human society.”

. . .

Mystery of supermarket egg pricing cracked

Two researchers at London’s City University have come up with a mathematical explanation for the way supermarkets price packs of commodity groceries and special offers such as buy-one-get-one-free and three-for-the-price-of-two promotions.

Philip Thomas, a mathematical engineer, and Alec Chrystal, an economist, found that for everyday products such as standard eggs and oranges most shoppers are reluctant to pay more than the price of a basic pack for another pack twice the size displayed alongside it.

That explains why some chains such as Tesco do not sell value packs of 12 eggs beside the basic six. “To get around the fact that consumers would want to pay the same for a dozen value eggs as for half a dozen, Tesco doesn’t offer a dozen at all,” Thomas says. “Instead it sells its ‘value’ eggs at 87p for half a dozen and puts 15 eggs in its larger pack, which it retails for £1.35.”

The Thomas-Chrystal pricing model suggests that a pack three times the size of the basic model should be sold for twice the price. That is what Sainsbury does, selling barn eggs at £1 for six and £2.10 for 18. “If you want to sell half-a-dozen eggs and a dozen eggs at the same time [like Waitrose], you must make your eggs seem special, not commodities at all,” Thomas says.

The famous Golden Ratio plays a role in supermarket pricing. You get this number, which is close to 1.62, when a line is divided in two and the longer part divided by the shorter part equals the whole length divided by the longer part.

The researchers say that, to maximise revenues, the larger pack should be 2.62 times (the square of the Golden Ratio) the size of the basic one and cost 1.62 times more. The study appears in the American Journal of Industrial and Business Management.

. . .

Rosetta probe set to make space history

An artist’s impression of Rosetta orbiting comet 67P

An artist’s impression of Rosetta orbiting comet 67P

Later this month, Rosetta, a European Space Agency (ESA) probe, will wake up after two-and-a-half years of hibernation in deep space, commencing the last stage of its journey to complete the first ever comet landing. Scientists hope that the craft, named after the code-breaking Rosetta stone, will translate some of the secrets of the universe into explanations for the origins of life on Earth, writes Sarah Spickernell.

Following its launch in 2004, Rosetta orbited the Earth three times and executed a slingshot around Mars. Having achieved the correct orbit for approaching the comet, Rosetta has spent the last 31 months sleeping in preparation for the final leg of its journey to meet comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta’s alarm clock is set to go off at 10am on January 20, activating its internal electronics and sending a signal to Earth. Then, if all goes according to plan, Rosetta will locate the comet and start moving towards it at 800m per second, beginning its rendezvous in August and landing a small probe on the comet in November 2014.

The main spacecraft will then follow the comet on its journey through the solar system for a year and a half, analysing how its composition and activity change as it heats up and hurtles towards the sun. “It’s time to open the treasure chest,” says Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at the ESA. “We are expecting a revolution of science from this mission.”

Information will be communicated back to scientists, who will use it to try to solve such conundrums as how the solar system originated, where life on Earth came from and how water ended up on our planet. Water, in the form of ice, is known to be present on the surface of comet 67P. By comparing its composition with that of water on Earth, we could discover that water first arrived on Earth via comets. If this is shown to be the case, other life forms may well have been delivered at the same time.

Chilling stuff

Microbes

Around a septillion (trillion trillion) microbes live in the top 2m of global glaciers and ice caps, say Aberystwyth University scientists – similar to the number in the top 200m of the world’s oceans.

Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser at the ESA directorate of science and robotic exploration, describes comets as “time capsules, remnants of the birth of the solar system”. Comet 67P has spent its life travelling so far away from the sun that its composition has altered very little since it was first created with the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

But this will change next year. As it gets close to the sun, the comet will become more active and material will be emitted from its surface via high-speed jets. The material present in these jets can be analysed by capturing particles of dust as they come into contact with the craft.

Once it has landed its probe on the nucleus, Rosetta will be able to drill beneath the surface and study the inside of the comet using tomography. This will allow scientists to gain a better understanding of the internal structure.

But the mission, which is costing the ESA €1bn to complete, will face new challenges. According to McCaughrean, the rendezvous will be “exciting but risky” because of the fluctuations in activity that will occur as it is exposed to the sun’s radiation.

The biggest challenge of all, however, will be the landing. Until now, spacecraft have only ever achieved “fly-bys” – where the craft takes a momentary snapshot of the comet’s activity without actually coming into contact with it. In order to place its probe on the comet, Rosetta will not be able to travel in the circular orbits it is used to but must instead adopt short, sharp arcs with steep turns.

“No one has ever done most of these things before,” says Ferri. “Making a rendezvous with a comet and staying around is a new kind of mission – fly-bys are nothing in comparison.”

Once the rendezvous has been completed at the end of 2015, McCaughrean sees no reason to end Rosetta’s journey. “As long as there is funding available, Rosetta could continue to follow the comet’s orbit as it starts to move away from the sun. We could then put it into hibernation and repeat the whole process in six-and-a-half years’ time.

“Alternatively, we could make Rosetta crash land onto the comet and conduct an even more detailed analysis. But that would be the end of Rosetta – we wouldn’t be able to use it again,” he says.

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