Scientists from Bielefeld University’s Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) were studying how intelligent assistance systems can help astronauts to keep fit – both physically and mentally. However, tests were not limited to humans, the robots were subjects as well. The scientists were testing both their suitability and their durability. The experiment ended on Saturday (April 27). The experiments are conducted under the supervision of Professor Dr. Franz Kummert and Professor Dr. Britta Wrede.
The eight test subjects spent 18 days living closely together in a sealed off area of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne. ‘Their living conditions were almost as cramped as those in a Space Shuttle,’ said Kummert. Distraction was provided by two robots, Flobi and Nao.
Flobi is a talking robotic head developed at Bielefeld University’s Cluster of Excellence on Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). It uses facial expressions to react to human behavior by moving its eyes, brows, eyelids, and lips. Researchers at Bielefeld completely reworked the mechanics of its neck, mouth, and eyes to make it more robust for the ‘SoziRob’ project in which the isolation study is embedded.
Flobi’s task in the study was to stimulate the test subjects mentally by playing several memory games with them every day. The robotic head uses facial expressions to react to the face of its human partner and it turns towards them – something that Flobi can do because it is able to locate the voice of its partner in space and evaluate her or his face visually.
Flobi‘s colleague, the almost 60 centimeter tall Nao, can talk, register persons visually, and move its hands, arms, and legs. The robot was responsible for sports training on board the test station. Every day, it trained each of the test subjects for one hour of spinning on the SRM IndoorTrainer, which flawlessly handled 18 days of continuous use. The robot instructed the test subjects on how fast they should go and what cadence to maintain, and told them how to perform their exercises.
From February to March, the Bielefeld research team had already carried out a control experiment to test what effects the three-week-long isolation would have on humans if they had to train and keep themselves occupied without attendant robots. ‘A first look at the completed questionnaires suggests that training with our robots was more personal and therefore more effective. Naturally, detailed information will be available only after a comprehensive analysis of the data. However, these preliminary findings strengthen our expectation that robots displaying social behavior will be accepted as interaction partners,’ said Franz Kummert.
The research project ‘SoziRob’ is being supported by the space agency of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) with funds from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.
The Research Institute for Cognition and Robotics (CoR-Lab) was set up to develop machines that are capable of learning from human beings and their behavior, of adapting to human beings, and of interacting with them in a flexible way. CoR-Lab brings together scientists from engineering, computer science, neuroscience, and the humanities along with psychology and linguistics. Roughly 70 scientists are working on interdisciplinary projects at CoR-Lab that are exploring how robots can learn cognitive abilities. They are working with humanoid robots such as iCub and Nao as well as with more industrial robot systems. CoR-Lab bridges the gap between basic research and technology transfer.