How robots learn to feel

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Packing boxes, dismantling shelves and transporting heavy items from one place to another – moving to a new home is an exhausting business. The idea that a robot could help with lugging the boxes is a tempting one. When it comes to helping with a move, however, robots are still inferior to humans in one crucial ability: whereas two humans will manage to carry a piece of furniture up a narrow staircase without bumping it against the walls, and without having to say a word, this would not work with a robot. “Robots are not sensitive to human movements or gestures. Unlike a human, they are unable to predict the movements of the other person”, explains Professor Andreas K. Engel.

Different disciplines working hand in hand

A brain researcher at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE),
Professor Engel wants to understand exactly how perception patterns function in the human brain. Among other things, he is coordinating a basic research project entitled “Socializing Sensorimotor Contingencies” (socSMCs). Launched in 2015, the four-year project is being funded by the European Union to the tune of nearly 3.8 million euros in total as part of the “Horizon 2020” programme. Eight partners from all over Europe are involved in the project, including not only brain researchers but also robotics experts, cognition researchers, psychologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and specialists in sports science. Together, their goal is to achieve smoother interaction between man and machine.

Why is brain research of interest in robotics?

But why is brain research so important in this context? First of all, the partners want to find out why humans can interact without using words, and how this process functions in the brain. Engel and his colleagues at the UKE in Hamburg assume that networks in the brain are responsible. These networks make it possible for humans to interact wordlessly with other humans, communicating for example through synchronized movements, as is the case in dance.

To understand how such interactions and the underlying networks function, Engel and his Hamburg colleagues are studying interactions between test subjects. One way they do this is to have two test subjects play a game of skill without talking, while the researchers measure their brain waves. On this basis, they intend to design models which will allow robots to be better operated. The idea is for them not only to be sensitized to human behaviour but also to be able to understand and interpret nonverbal communication. Such robots could for example be used in nursing care.

Hope for autism sufferers

Engel believes that the results could also be of interest to autism sufferers. “We believe that the networks function differently in people with this condition”, the brain researcher explains, saying that people with autism often find it difficult to interpret social stimuli. “It is possible that changes in the cerebellum are responsible. We want to use the findings of our research to develop a training programme for people with an autistic disorder so as to make their daily lives easier”, says Engel.

Processes in the brain are linked to many different diseases

Together with his colleagues in Hamburg, he is also researching complex processes in the brain in a large-scale project supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG): “Multi-site communication in the brain” is what is known at the DFG as a Collaborative Research Centre. These are institutions established at universities for a period of up to twelve years, where many researchers work together on an interdisciplinary basis. The Collaborative Research Centre run by Engel and his colleague Professor Christian Gerloff is focusing its research on three medical conditions: Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and strokes. “We also analyse communication in the brain here. Ultimately, we hope that this will allow procedures to be developed which will improve the condition of patients”, explains Engel.

Why brain research is so exciting for young researchers

Brain research is of relevance to numerous scientific disciplines, which is why the Collaborative Research Centre involves 21 scientists from theoretical and clinical departments of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and the University of Hamburg as well as three scientists from the universities of Lübeck and Osnabrück working together. “Brain research is also exciting for young researchers. This is a highly innovative field, particularly where it overlaps with robotics. The conditions on the international employment market are very good in this area”, comments Engel. This is why Engel and his colleagues believe it is so important to encourage young researchers. 50 doctoral students in a DFG Research Training Group were involved in the research in the first phase of the project. In addition, the socSMCs project runs a summer school every year. Young researchers from Europe are invited to apply for around 50 places.