Artistic touch humanises Australia's androids

By Saffron Howden
Sydney, Australia

image copyrightUNSW
image captionMari Velonaki (right) keeps an eye on Geminoid-F, a robot modelled on a Japanese actress

Once the domain of nerdy scientists, robotics research is reaching out to new disciplines, including the arts, with some surprising results.

In the bowels of a university building off Oxford Street in Sydney, a quiet revolution is taking place. The laboratory doors to the once male-only world of robotics are being thrown open - by a female artist.

Mari Velonaki is a leader in the new and rapidly growing field of social robotics, the creation of robots for everyday use.

It is a field that has accounted for about 80% of the growth in robotics since 2005, according to research done by Queensland University of Technology. Industrial robotics makes up the remaining 20%.

As part of a minority in the field - women are estimated to represent no more than about 20% of robotics researchers - and with a background as an artist, Ms Velonaki brings a fresh perspective to robotic research.

"For many years I was the only woman. I didn't have any female students," says the University of New South Wales (UNSW) associate professor. "It's great to have men and women. We have different things to offer... [women ask] different questions."

image copyrightUNSW
image captionDiamandini responds to the people around 'her'

She says that because "life is outside of labs", scientists need to expose humanoid or android robots to the public to better tailor the machines to a human environment.

This is particularly important for robots designed for social settings such as hospitals or nursing homes.

The field of robotics has always taken into account physical hurdles but Ms Velonaki is breaking ground in examining the emotional, social and psychological barriers people experience when using robots.

"We can never gather this data from a lab," she says.

To that end, three years ago she founded the Creative Robotics Lab at UNSW.

Ms Velonaki arrived at robotics via the unusual route of interactive installation art.

Since fusing her artistic pursuits with robotics, she has designed and helped programme four robots, which are defined loosely as automated machines that can move and make pre-programmed decisions.

Inspiration from discrimination

The 45-year-old came to Australia as an undergraduate art student 20 years ago and then completed a PhD in interface design and post-doctoral work at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

In 2006, she founded the Centre for Social Robotics, where she is still co-director.

This year, she was named one of the 25 "women in robotics you need to know about" by Robohub - a large online robotics community drawing together researchers, educators and business.

"My focus is exactly the same as when I was working in the art context," she says of her mechanical engineering work, which explores people's relationship with machines.

Growing up in Switzerland, the young Ms Velonaki was greatly affected by her older cousin who suffered from multiple sclerosis and had to use a wheelchair.

It was this relationship - and the discrimination her cousin and family faced in the 1970s because of his condition - that inspired Ms Velonaki's first major interactive art installation, using two wheelchairs.

image copyrightMari Velonaki
image captionThe Fish-Bird installation invites audiences to interact with it

Her installation, Fish-Bird, which has since toured the world, interacts with its audience through movement and text.

The wheelchairs are programmed to respond to the behaviour of people who come to view the art work and to offer words of wisdom, often in the form of poetry, in short notes that pop out of a small printer built into each wheelchair.

The audience is invited to write their own "love letters" to Fish-Bird and leave them with the installation. Ms Velonaki has collected tens of thousands of these notes from around the world.

Technology for people

Her research has recently taken another interesting turn. With her co-worker, Dr David Silvera-Tawil, Ms Velonaki undertook the first cross-cultural study of responses to androids. The results, presented at the Sixth International Conference on Social Robotics in Sydney in October 2014, were a surprise.

Through a series of experiments involving 111 people in Australia and Japan, the android - a robot named Geminoid-F modelled on a Japanese actress - instructed participants to move a box from one place to another, to touch its hand, to move a chair and to ask it open-ended questions.

Ms Velonaki had assumed the prevalence of robots in Japanese popular culture would engender in the Japanese a more trusting relationship with androids.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJapanese robot, Astro Boy, drops in on a school assembly in Tokyo

But it seems the country that spawned one of the world's most famous robots, Astro Boy, has a much harder time embracing automatons than sun-loving Australians.

"[Australians] liked the robot much more than in Japan," says Ms Velonaki.

Before Geminoid-F, Ms Velonaki toured galleries and museums around the world with Diamandini, a graceful, petite porcelain-like humanoid. At a height of 155cm (5ft) and with a tiny waist, "she" is modelled on a young adult female.

Like Fish-Bird, the robot responds to the behaviour of people moving in the space with her by, for example, moving closer to them, or further away. "Kids would try to push her, people would try to hold her hand, pat her head," says Ms Velonaki.

Diamandini has contributed to the scientific understanding of how the environment robots inhabit dictates how people respond to them, she says.

It is all in keeping with her driving philosophy that technology should be designed for people, not designed for the sake of technology.

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