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'It's a when and not an if situation': Sligo researchers studying how to integrate our future robotic colleagues

Robotic colleagues of the future? Think Wall-E or Johnny 5 and not C3PO and Terminator.

Well known robotic workmates Wall-E and Eve.
Well known robotic workmates Wall-E and Eve.
Image: Pixar

RESEARCHERS AT SLIGO Institute of Technology have embarked on a new programme aimed at preparing students for their future robotic colleagues. 

The team has joined forces with several universities in a new European project on what are known as ‘social robots’. These are robots that are designed to work with people, particularly those in the caring professions such as therapists and social care workers. 

For many in the Irish workforce the announcement of  robotic colleagues may not be welcome news. A recent Red C survey for the Irish Times found almost 40% of us are afraid robots will take our jobs.  

Dr Perry Share of the IT Sligo team however believes robots joining the workforce is a ‘when’ and not ‘if’ situation.

How are robots going to change our jobs? And for us in education how do we prepare for that?

Dr John Pender who is also on the team agrees: 

Increasingly, carers will be assisted by robots and artificial intelligence.

“There is growing evidence that the emotional intelligence possessed by social robots in the future will enable them to make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable people in society,” Pender said. 

So what will these robots be like? According to the team, more Wall-E or Johnny 5 than C3PO and Terminator.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it.

As part of the research IT Sligo and Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland are testing ‘Paro’ a soft doe-eyed robot seal that reacts to petting and conversation.

Share says the technology for social robots has been around for decades, “Paro for example was developed by a Japanese team 20 years ago”.

However the team in Sligo will be one of the first to look at how to integrate robots into education, so that future teachers and healthcare and social care workers are aware of what they can do and more importantly are comfortable working with them. 

For the project to be a success the team will need to get the educators and scientific researchers working together. “To link robot researchers with lecturers in early childhood and social care and students. These professions rarely talk to one another,” Share said. 

The three-year project is in its early stages and so far Share said the feedback is mixed. 

Students are aware that robots are in the workplace elsewhere and that will become part of their lives here, but aren’t just ready to accept it. 

“The interesting thing so far is on the one hand they don’t want to work with robots in the future, but they admit that it is coming. It suggests that they’re not really ready,” said Share.

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CD1_6923 Dr John Pender, President Dr. Brendan McCormack and Dr. Perry Share of the IT Sligo team with robot seal Paro which helps sufferers of dementia reduce stress. Source: IT Sligo

As for Paro the robotic seal, the research shows positive results.

These devices are used in a similar way to pet therapy in that it’s hoped they will help to relax patients and give them something to focus on and care for.

“It’s similar to pet therapy, but doesn’t come with the same problems as a real life pet,” Share said.

In other countries these technologies have been used to comfort to people with Alzheimer’s or autism or even those experiencing loneliness or depression.

Share said the results are promising as it seems to help people who are in the middle stages of dementia. 

That’s where the Alzheimer’s society comes into the frame. The team at IT Sligo has handed over Paro to the charity so they can assess how useful it is in real life scenarios. “People seem to respond very quickly with these seals,” Share said.

It’s hoped that by the end of the project the team will have come up for a way of integrating social robots into college courses, so that students when they graduate are prepared for sharing their work day with computerised colleagues. 

The research is funded under the EU Commission’s “Erasmus and Key Action 203 – Strategic Partnerships” programme.

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