Robots gain empathy skills thanks to Ontario Tech team and international intern

Goal to develop “trusted confidant” non-human assistants

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If, for example, a panicked person shouts for help, Zenbo may suggest calling 9-1-1 because it understands the underlying need for emergency assistance. This sort of empathic response could make robots an important companion in care homes, hospitals, and at home.

A senior undergraduate student at the Technological Institute of Advanced Studies of Monterrey (ITESM), Mexico, Eduardo Perez Valle travelled to Canada this summer as a Mitacs Globalink intern to join a research team at the Ontario Tech University. The team, led by Professor Miguel Vargas Martin, is developing software that helps Zenbo understand human commands from both a practical and an empathic perspective.

The research team also studies direct robot-to-robot communication that would help make robot assistants in care homes more trusted and secure.

“AI products like Alexa or Google Home process information in the Cloud so you have very limited control over who’s going to listen to your conversations,” Professor Martin explains. “Our approach ensures privacy because everything is processed locally with the intent of making the relationship between the person and the robot more natural so that a companion robot becomes a true confidant.”

In the meantime, Eduardo is learning natural language processing, a technique used in artificial intelligence (AI) research to help Zenbo understand human commands more accurately. When combined with other researchers’ work to learn facial expressions and vocal indicators of emotions, Zenbo will eventually develop empathy-like skills.

“The work is challenging and I’m learning a lot,” says Eduardo. “It’s amazing to be able to work with some of the most leading-edge AI tools available. I have never had this kind of opportunity to apply my existing skills in such a practical way while learning new, cutting-edge techniques.

And I’ve made so many friends in Oshawa through this internship. It’s been a great experience.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada, along with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Manitoba, and the Government of Quebec for their support of the Globalink Research Internship program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with the following international partners to support Globalink: Universities Australia; Brazil’s Universidade de São Paulo; China Scholarship Council; Campus France; German Academic Exchange Service; Mexico’s Government of the State of Guanajuato, EDUCAFIN, and Tecnológico de Monterrey; Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche scientifique, des Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication de la Tunisie and Mission universitaire de Tunisie en Amérique du Nord; and Ukrainian-Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko.

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