Today’s innovations in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are having a huge social impact on society and on the university students who work on them.

When doctoral candidate Chand Gudi was selecting a university for his further studies, he wanted to be part of an active team where he could learn new skills and be involved in research with a real-world impact.

Gudi, who hopes to make groundbreaking contributions in the field of robotics using artificial intelligence (AI), was offered scholarships to three Australian universities. The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) stood out for its innovative research, collaborative focus, global mindset and potential for making a real difference in human lives.

So, Gudi accepted a position with The Magic Lab, UTS's innovation and enterprise research laboratory, in its Centre of Artificial Intelligence – and he hasn’t looked back.

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Doctoral candidate Chand Gudi is also a researcher with The Magic Lab, UTS's innovation and enterprise laboratory

The lab is a pioneer in conducting transdisciplinary research into innovations that can transform society and a shining example of UTS's vision of research that is committed to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge of public value. Reflecting this overall ethos, The Magic Lab is at the forefront of disruptive technologies in areas such as intelligent connected cars, IoT (the Internet of Things), machine learning, AI and even social robots.

Social robotics poised to have huge impact

Social robots are autonomous robots designed to interact and communicate with humans. It is a disruptive innovation poised to have a huge impact on society, particularly in domestic environments.

Gudi is particularly interested in how they can be used to address global issues such as the increase in ageing populations.

"Social robots have great potential in the lives of older people, especially those living alone at home."

"They can be a real part of their lives by supporting them – being a companion and a caregiver," Gudi says. "A social robot can be programmed to understand and share feelings or emotions and participate in human life."

"For example, the role of a robot can be to act as a companion to an elderly person or to ensure medications are taken on time. In the future, I can also see robots taking on the role of a coach or giving advice to humans in different situations."

Award-winning social robotics

Robotics provides opportunities for collaborative creation, problem solving, achievement and fun at UTS, where international students can start their journey via a pathway program in engineering, IT or science at UTS Insearch.

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RoboCup winning humanoid robot 'Pepper' developed by The Magic Lab (L); Steve Wozniak interacting with 'Pepper' (R)

A dedicated team of university researchers and students from The Magic Lab saw three years of hard work pay off when in July 2019 it won gold at RoboCup – an international robotics competition held annually since 1996 – for its socially adept robotics programming.

The team programmed a humanoid robot named Pepper, supplied by Softbank Robotics, to demonstrate a high degree of social interaction and adaptive behaviours in different social situations. This includes tasks such as meeting and greeting guests, making introductions as a party host, helping clean up and take out the rubbish, and serving in a restaurant.

They designed and developed social robot behaviours, human-robot interactions, basic robot capabilities such as navigation, localisation, locomotion, arm and head motions. This also included capabilities such as speaking and speech recognition, as well as finding, recognising and describing people.

The win makes UTS the world champion in robot interaction and collaboration with people in realistic situations. 

While RoboCup is a competition and lots of fun, it’s also a teaching and learning experience that was designed to provide exceptional leadership opportunities for students, says Distinguished Professor Mary-Anne Williams, Director of The Magic Lab; one of Gudi's supervisors, and leader of the winning team, 'UTS Unleashed!'.

"Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, is a Distinguished Professor in The Magic Lab – he flew from California [to Sydney] just for RoboCup and to support the students," Professor Williams says.

Social robot technology is ready. Are we?

Robots really can make a difference to people's lives, says Professor Williams, who founded The Magic Lab in October 2002.

"With our research focus on developing safe and secure robots for human-centric environments, we are looking for ways social robots can operate with not just the intelligence to optimise and perform physical tasks, but to work with humans in reliable and enjoyable ways."

Professor Williams has played a key role in UTS's status as a world leader in social robotics research and in the deployment of social robotics to industry and business. Moreover, she says social robot technology is ready.

"The key question is: how quickly will people adopt it?," she asks. "It usually takes a decade or two for new technologies to become widely adopted. People used mobile phones for more than 30 years before they became mainstream. Driverless cars are examples of social robots and they are already deployed in many parts of the world."

Professor Williams has helped the United Nations understand the impact of AI on human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security, and will soon begin exploring the potential of social robotics in the healthcare industry.

"Hospitals are underserviced and there is enormous scope for social robots like Pepper to provide valuable services," she says. "From entertaining children and helping people get to where they want, to ensuring the right medications are administered at the right time and enabling friends and family to telepresence and visit patients. The applications are limitless."

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