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Nadia Thalmann

'Social Robots' May One Day Help Your Doctor

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Nadia Thalmann

When a strikingly realistic humanoid robot named Nadine made her public debut last month in Singapore, the world reacted with fascination—and a bit of unease. Something like Apple’s Siri in human form, Nadine has soft, life-like facial features and relatively authentic human expressions. She can remember names and faces and even recognize and express emotion. Yet she never loses her calm, professional demeanor.

Meet Nadine.

Nadine is a so-called social robot: a robot that can interact with humans and follows their social rules. She is a work in progress. Everything she “learns” has to be programmed. Right now, for example, Nadine’s creators are programming her to grasp things with her hands. This will enable her to play games or retrieve items, important skills for a robot that could be the prototype for a future companion or health care provider.

“We know the robot is not a human friend, but it is at least a professional friend that is aware of who you are and what are your needs and can respond to them in a professional way,” Nadia Thalmann, Nadine's creator, tells mental_floss. Thalmann, whom Nadine was modeled after, is a professor and the director of Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

For Thalmann, Nadine is a glimpse at a future in which humanoid robots may provide personal assistance, social support, and perhaps even health care, particularly for older people. Nadine can already call for help if she detects someone has fallen and will be programmed to perform other care tasks. 

Will humanoid robots ever replace human doctors and nurses? Certainly not in the next couple of decades, according to Thalmann. But as the population ages and the current shortage of nurses and other care providers worsens, robots may, at the very least, assist with basic nursing assistance tasks—something that’s already happening in Japan

As the technologies are refined in the coming years, precision robotic devices will increasingly assist with specific medical procedures, including surgery, while social robots like Nadine may occupy supporting roles in situations where patients need a more human touch.

Other service robots have been programmed to take blood pressure and other vital signs, remind people to take their medication and send data to a doctor. That could help physicians better monitor their patients and intervene more quickly if the robot reports anomalies in the patient’s regimen or vital signs.

The trick is to combine the functionality of these service robots with a more human touch, characteristics that will make people more likely to interact with and confide in them, rather than being made uneasy by a robot that is both eerily human-like and yet fundamentally not—a phenomenon sometimes called the uncanny valley

Elizabeth Broadbent is an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. She studies how people respond to different types of robots in various settings in order to understand what characteristics make a robot most effective at providing care—particularly to the elderly. 

With an aging population, robots could become especially important in eldercare. Broadbent’s research has found that some people actually prefer to have a robot looking after their most intimate personal needs, like bathing or using the toilet. 

“It’s embarrassing to ask someone to help you, but if you have a robot you wouldn’t be embarrassed,” Broadbent says. “So I definitely think there are some advantages in that.”

According to Broadbent, many people—particularly older people—feel less indebted to robots than to human care providers. Relying on a robot helps them alleviate worries about imposing too much on the precious time of a doctor or nurse.

“Some people say, ‘I’d like to have a robot because I wouldn’t be bothering the doctor,’” she says. A robot could take care of their basic needs, making them more relaxed about spending time talking to doctors and nurses about their health. 

Here are Nadine and Edgar, a less human-like robot, making small talk. 

Non-human health care providers may have other advantages over humans in those roles. A 2014 University of Southern California study found that people were more willing to share personal health information with a virtual human on a screen than with an actual human during a mental health intake. The virtual human could show empathetic responses, facial expressions and body language, yet the participants felt it was less judgmental than an actual human in the same role.

So perhaps the perfect health care robot of the future will combine the intellect, physical features, strength and precision of a human with the pleasant, if slightly detached, mien of a Nadine-like humanoid. It might happen sooner than we think.

Bonus: Watch Nadine's chilling cover of Adele's 2011 chart-topper "Rolling in the Deep." 

All images courtesy of Nadia M. Thalmann

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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