Human or robot, or a bit of both

The topic of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Jubilee Symposium held at LiU was “Materials and Technology for a Digital Future”. The symposium focussed on technology and materials that mimic humans, but the range of topics was broad, and the symposium attracted many visitors.

Great interest during Jubilee Symposium

A thin, pressure-sensitive material so delicate it can detect when a butterfly lands on its surface was one of the breakthroughs presented by Zhenan Bao, professor at Stanford University, at the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Jubilee Symposium held at LiU.
 
The aim is to mimic human skin, with respect to both appearance and functionality. She described how they have developed the pressure-sensitive circuits, microstructures in organic electronics, and how they have designed receptors that mimic how human skin sends signals to the brain.  
The next step is to make the circuits more skin-like.
Zhenan Bao, professor Stanford UniversityZhenan Bao, professor Stanford University Photo credit: Thor Balkhed
“We can now make them very thin, and completely transparent.”

Wearable electronics

The materials they work with are flexible conducting polymers that make it possible to construct a more life-like robot hand with elastic skin that follows the hand’s motion. It is also possible to create self-healing materials – when damaged, the material grows together and the damaged edges soon make contact with each other again.
 
“We are on the threshold of an era in which electronics will become part of our bodies. Wearable electronics will change our lives, and the relationship between us and the world around us,” said Zhenan Bao.
 
In November 2016, she took the initiative to the project “Stanford wearable electronic initiatives”, since the technology will require research in many different fields, such as new materials, applications development, systems development, software development, and many others.
 
“We are going to need a wide range of expertise here. We want to draw up a roadmap, a plan for the future, in a field we call ‘elastonics’, and we want to include the user perspective here,” she said.

Ion pump and electronic roses

Eleni Stavrinidou, researcher at Laboratory of Organic ElectronicsEleni Stavrinidou, researcher at Laboratory of Organic Electronics Photo credit: Thor BalkhedLiU researchers Magnus Berggren and Eleni Stavrinidou described the breakthroughs that have been made at Campus Norrköping in connecting organic electronics and human nerve cells. One of the many examples they presented was a tiny ion pump that researchers can use to stop pain signals in rats.
 
This research may find application in both the relief of chronic pain and stopping epileptic seizures before they occur. The two also presented research into electronic plants. More information is available at the link and video below.

The social robot Nadine

But the robots are also becoming evermore life-like. The presentation given by Professor Nadia Thalmann, who divides her time between NTU in Singapore and the University of Geneva, showed this clearly. She has developed a robot whom she has christened ‘Nadine’.
 
“Nadine is essentially a social robot,” says Nadia Thalmann.
 
Nadine interacts with the people around her. If you are nice to Nadine, she is nice to you, but Nadia Thalmann showed a video sequence in which a researcher tells Nadine in an unfriendly tone of voice that he finds her boring. “Why don’t you just leave now, and don’t come back,” Nadine immediately responds.
 
Nadia Thalmann, Professor NTU and Genève UniversityNadia Thalmann, Professor NTU and Genève University Photo credit: Thor Balkhed“She is more advanced than Siri (the speech-synthesis function used in Apple products), since she knows who she’s talking to.
When she recognises me, she may ask me how my daughter is. She remembers me: she has a relationship with me and is interested in what I do,” says Nadia Thalmann.
 
But the challenges are many, and the researchers are continually improving the robot. They experiment with different types of speech synthesis and different models of personality. 
Nadine must be able to function in social contexts. This involves understanding behaviour and social rules, and understanding feelings and responding to them appropriately.
 
“If someone is unhappy, Nadine must be able to understand this,” says Nadia Thalmann.

No-one is afraid of Nadine

Nadine finds it difficult to converse in a group. She can talk to an individual and follow one person at a time, and she can shift focus from one person to another during the conversation. But she can’t cope with these decisions when many people talk at the same time. 
 
“Nadine also finds it difficult to be proactive,” says Nadia Thalmann.
 
Nadine is currently working at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, where she interacts with visitors.
 
Nadia Thalmann med sin sociala robot NadineNadia Thalmann with her social robot Nadine“No-one is afraid of Nadine. Children who visit the exhibition can’t get enough of her: they don’t want to leave. And I’ve never heard a negative comment about Nadine,” says Nadia Thalmann.
 
The researchers are now working also on a male robot, Charlie, who will keep Nadine company.
 
Nadia Thalmann’s research group is also working with new materials and combinations of materials to produce, for example, as realistic a robot hand as possible. Nadine’s hands have been modelled in 3D, then simulated and printed in sections on a 3D printer. All the sections have been joined together in such a way that the fingers are mobile, and the hand has been designed such that Nadine can, for example, grip and lift a glass.
 
Nadia Thalmann hopes that robots such as Nadine will be highly useful in the future, not least for looking after and stimulating elderly people and patients with dementia.
 
“This is highly sought after in Japan, and it’s not something that is being driven by the technical developments,” she says.

Collaborating robots

Patrick Doherty, professor of artificial intelligence at LiU, described the advances that have been made within the European research project, Sherpa. This involves getting robots tPatrick Doherty, Professor Artificiell IntelligensPatrick Doherty, Professor Artificiell Intelligens Photo credit: Thor Balkhedo collaborate not only with each other but also with humans who may be, for example, carrying out a mountain rescue mission in the Alps. 
 
The model has been adopted from the way in which people plan and delegate tasks. The robots and humans can delegate tasks both across the groups and within them. 
“The system has been tested in the Gripen Swedish fighter jet, and in the Italian alps, with good results,” says Patrick Doherty.
 
He showed examples in which robots had completely autonomously asked humans for help when they couldn’t lift a box or reach a particular place. 
 
The results are also important components of the Wallenberg Autonomous Systems and Software Program, WASP, which is now entering its second year (of ten).

Biomolecular machines and visualisation

Rickard Murray, Professor California Institute of TechnologyRickard Murray, Professor California Institute of Technology Photo credit: Monica WestmanMany scientists gave lectures during the day: Chris Johnson, University of Utah, described advances within scientific visualisation. LiU researchers Jonas Unger and Anders Ynnerman, from the Division for Media and Information Technology, showed advances and challenges within visualisation technology. More details of their work can be seen in the video linked below. Their research is also closely connected to the Wallenberg-financed WASP.
 
Richard Murray from the California Institute of Technology has a background within automatic control. He described his work building and programming biomolecular machines with the aid of DNA, while Olle Inganäs and Feng Gao, researchers at the Division for Biomolecular and Organic Electronics at LiU, described advances that the new materials perovskites will bring to organic solar cells and light-emitting diodes. 

Linköping University exceptional

“Today has given me a great deal of inspiration. It’s not often that I can sit and listen for a full day, but this has been truly interesting and exciting,” said LiU’s vice-chancellor, Helen Dannetun, when closing the symposium.
 
Peter Wallenberg Jr Peter Wallenberg Jr Photo credit: Thor BalkhedPeter Wallenberg Jr also expressed his great appreciation:
“Some Swedish universities are exceptional, and Linköping is one of them. This is a relatively small university which focusses on a few areas, and is doing an excellent job with limited resources. I am impressed and fascinated by research that leads to discoveries that we didn’t even know that we were looking for,” he said.
 
The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is one of Europe’s largest private research financiers and has through the years provided research funding at LiU for a total of SEK 1.2 billion, of which SEK 0.7 billion has been granted during the past 10 years.
 
Short video about LiU research in visualisation:

 

Ion pump and electronic roses

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