Shadow opens office at Future Space at UWE Bristol

The article below has been reblogged from Shadow Robot’s website with their permission.

One of the UK’s longest-running robotics companies, Shadow Robot Company, have just opened a new office in Bristol’s Future Space which is based at the University of West England (UWE Bristol), adjacent to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL).

Shadow are a partner in the Innovate UK-funded CHIRON project, a two year programme to design care robotics for the future, partnering the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Designability, amongst others.

Managing Director of Shadow, Rich Walker, said “Having an office in Bristol is perfect for us. We have many links out here in the west of England, and it’s a great base for us to work closer with our partners on the CHIRON project.

“We’re also keen to build new relationships in this area, and Future Space seems like the best possible fit for us in terms of location and links to other innovators and businesses.”

The Centre Director of Future Space, Elaine McKechnie said “The Shadow Robot Company is a perfect fit for Future Space and we are very excited that they have decided to set up a base here. Shadow joins a growing group of engineering and technology companies that are seeking to work in a stimulating environment that will nurture collaborative opportunities.”

Associate Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly is leading the BRL element of the CHIRON project, and said, “Ensuring that our research into development assistive robots has the potential to reach people and make an impact in the real-world requires working from the start with commercial partners such as Shadow. The BRL distinguishes itself from other research organisations in this area by working in a participatory manner with not only commercial enterprises who have experience of delivering market-ready products, but also people who will be using technology in their homes and care organisations.

“It makes huge sense for the Shadow Robot Company to take up a base in Bristol. We are working together with commercial partners on other robotic solutions to help older people live for longer in their homes. We’re delighted to have such an established robotics team joining us next door to the BRL and hope this proximity will help us develop further research collaborations.’

The CHIRON project (Care at Home using Intelligent Robotic Omni-functional Nodes) looksto create a set of intelligent modular robotic systems, located in multiple positions around your home; CHIRON could help you with personal hygiene tasks in the morning, help you get ready for the day and even support you in preparing your favourite meal in the kitchen.

It is being managed by a consortium led by Designability. The key technology partners are the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Shadow Robot Company, who have considerable expertise in conducting pioneering research and development in robotics.

Award winning social enterprise care provider, Three Sisters Care will bring user-centered design to the very core of the our project. Smart Homes & Buildings Association will work to introduce the range of devices that will create CHIRON and make it an indispensable presence in our homes.

STEM Woman of the Year

Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly (left) STEM Woman of the Year at RWOTY Awards

By Sinéad Nolan

This week the CHIRON team were delighted to congratulate one of our project leads, Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, on winning the Red Woman of the Year Award 2016 for STEM.

Selected from five shortlisted nominees to be named the most inspirational woman in STEM in 2016, Praminda’s success will hopefully spread ripples further afield than her department at Bristol laboratory where she is an Associate Professor, to the wider society where women still only account for a shocking 12.8% of the entire STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce.

The majority of Praminda’s work focuses on developing technological solutions for people living with disabilities or long-term health conditions. She played an influential part in developing SAM (Self-help for Anxiety Management), an app to help people to understand their anxiety, monitor anxious thoughts and follow self-help exercises. SAM has had over half a million downloads to date. Praminda also works for Designability in Bristol as their head of electronics and computer systems. She said of the award:

“I feel very honoured indeed for the recognition. While we still do not have enough women working in STEM, there are a number of amazing women achieving so much and to be selected feels very special indeed. It inspires me even more to ensure that I do my very best to get more women and girls involved in exploring the opportunities offered by working in STEM related areas. One of the biggest challenge is overcoming the misconceptions that STEM subjects are hard or boring – we need to do more to show the creativity in STEM and the myriad of exciting application areas.”

She added: “Engineering today requires good communication and listening skills in addition to technical understanding and expertise. There is so much useless, difficult to use and unattractive technology out there, which frankly is a disgrace. We know that taking a participatory approach to design and applying user-centred methods for design and development can make all the difference (…) however with more women coming in, bring with them different perspectives and agendas is helping to break the barriers to let in new ways of approaching the challenges that our society faces.”

Now in their eighth year, the Red awards bring together people from a broad range of professions and walks of life, from scientists and creatives, to fashion insiders and charity pioneers, who are all celebrated for being ground breakers and trail blazers in their own right. The event was attended by women from many sectors – with their host for the night TV and radio presenter, Fearne Cotton, and speakers and attendees including Samantha Cameron and Millie Mackintosh.

Samantha Cameron (left) and Fearne Cotton (right)

“The highlight for me was being surrounded by so much energy and passion,” says Praminda of the evening. “I was in awe of all the other women there receiving awards – and a new found admiration for what can be achieved with determination and passion. I would encourage everyone to read about all the nominees. I was most moved by listening to Claire Throssall’s acceptance speech and her courage to reach deep into herself and achieve what she has.”

Of her work, judge Cathy Newman (a judge on the Red awards) said: “Praminda is a star in the male-dominated STEM firmament, but as well as fulfilling her potential, her tech wizardry has helped disabled people lead more fulfilling lives, too. Her app is practical and ingenious.”

But despite all the praise, Praminda was able to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground and reflect after the glow of the event, upon the dual role women play in society and how we still have a long way to go.

“My hopes for the future of women in science is where we won’t actually have to discuss this at all. We would all be equal, respected for what we do, rather than our gender or background determining how we are perceived and pigeonholed.”

“We need a range of different channels to reach out to people and showcase the ability and achievements of women that can often get lost. There was an interesting BBC article last year which was sad to read – The Women Whom Science Forgot. There is still so much sexism in our society where women are judged by their looks rather than their ability and it is vital to make sure that ability and achievement are what inspire and inform our younger generations.

“Acknowledging this is a great way to reinforce what is important, what really matters. There are still a number of places where women don’t get the same opportunities and privileges to help them achieve their full potential as men do. We need to do everything we can to change this.”

 

Is the Internet of Things the Future of Care?

By Sinéad Nolan

Last week The Guardian ran an article on how the care we need may come from the Internet of Things. The article was interesting and while I didn’t necessarily agree on all points, it was food for thought. It got me thinking about today’s society with our smart phones, self-service tills, contactless payment and Pokémon augmented reality and I realised from that we can deduce one thing at least: humans like technology.

We enjoy things that entertain or connect us, and being naturally lazy, anything that makes life easier and speeds up a process. We also seem to like anything that helps us do things we cannot do. It stands to reason that people in the stage of their life where they need care would elect for a technology that makes their life not only easier, but also more enjoyable, dignified and independent. Doesn’t it?

Perhaps at the moment the answer may be more complex than a simple yes or no. Speak to any group of people and you will find a divide – with many people still worried that this technology (the Internet of Things, assistive technology, care robots) will not make our lives more dignified and independent, but instead make us more susceptible to loneliness and even more removed from society.

Nevertheless, with new apps and assistive technology devices being created every day it seems we are on our way to a smart home generation. Monitors and sensors that link people’s data to their family, their GP and their care provider, ensure our relatives (and all of us one day) will soon be safe from potentially laying on the floor for hours after a fall.

It would be easy for the critical thinkers among us to reject the idea of a smart home outright, and perhaps we still have a long way to go until there is technology acceptance from everyone on this level. Realistically, how many old people want to be monitored 24/7 by their family, and potentially put their most intimate data at risk of exploitation to third parties.

The feeling of trepidation may come from those who look around and see how technology has not, in their opinion, made life happier or better. Those who do not think Facebook is a substitute for reading nor Pokémon a substitute for a cup of tea and a chat. There are those of the pre-Tinder generation who still long for the days of writing letters, looking out windows on trains, making eye contact with handsome strangers in bars, and of relatives who visited to see if you were alright.

Secrecy and privacy seem to always end up as a sacrifice to the god of safety, but hopefully for the older generation of the future we can strike a balance between the two – and who knows, smart homes might lead us into the future of our dreams.

The iPal – a help or hindrance to child development?

The article below has been reblogged from Shadow Robot’s website with their permission.

Have you seen this article on The Guardian? The iPal robot launched at RoboBusiness in California last week and is causing quite a stir.

According to Avatarmind, the company that created the robot, the iPal is a 3ft tall companion robot for children aged 3-8 years old. It has a tablet on it’s chest which children can interact with; one of the best uses of the robot is as a teacher – the iPal will answer those tricky questions (for example ‘why do we hiccup?’), however if the robot doesn’t have an answer, it passes the question on to a human at Avatarmind who will respond with the answer, and therefore growing the iPal’s knowledge along the way.

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iPal also has the ability to monitor your child, allowing you to message or video chat with them. Speaking to the Guardian earlier in the year, Professor Noel Sharkey (Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield) said “robots are a great educational tool for children. It inspires them to learn about science and engineering, but there are significant dangers in having robots mind our children. They do not have the sensitivity or understanding needed for childcare.” and when Julia Carrie Wong of the Guardian pressed him about the iPal, his message was clear: “This is awful.”

However, Professor Tony Prescott of Sheffield Robotics, speaking at the London Innovation Summit 2016, said that robot companionship would be better for you than interacting with a screen. Our MD, Rich Walker, said that socially anxious children could even go on adventures with their companion robots.

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Hello Kitty – A tool for projection?

The iPal has large eyes but an empty face – a look made popular by Hello Kitty (whose creators purposely didn’t add a mouth so that the viewer could project their emotions onto her, this way Hello Kitty is always reflecting our mood). The iPal seems to be a high-tech version of ‘My Size Barbie’ (a 3ft tall doll); it is perhaps an almost natural progression to pop a screen on a toy like that and bring it to life. But what do you think? Would you prefer your child to play with an iPal or an iPad?

Tweet us your thoughts at @shadowrobot or @chironproject or feel free to comment below.

Upcoming event – Robots vs Humanity

The CHIRON project are excited to be hosting an event called Robots vs Humanity at Google Campus, London on the evening of 1st December 2016!

Attend Robots Vs Humanity to enjoy talks from robot engineers, psychologists, inventors and tech entrepreneurs as they explore the next generation of robots, technology, and humanity. There will even be a visit from Pepper the service robot!

Tickets are free – available from Eventbrite.

*List of confirmed speakers to be updated on here at a later date*

UK Robotics Mission

The article below has been reblogged from Shadow Robot’s website with their permission.

Rich Walker from Shadow Robot recently spent a week out in Taiwan as part of the UK Robotics Mission organised by the British Office. It was a really valuable trip, with Rich meeting Taiwanese companies and roboticists, as well as getting the chance to address them at the TAIROS Industrial 4.0 International Forum. Here’s what Rich had to say about the trip:

“The Foreign Office likes to keep UK business abreast of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and as part of this they maintain a global Science and Innovation Network (SIN) operating out of embassies and consulates all over the world. The Taiwan local team realised that there were lots of activities taking place in robotics both in the UK and Taiwan, and decided to organise a trade mission focused on engagement between UK and Taiwanese robotics companies and researchers.

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“The mission was led by the indomitable Prof. Guang-Zhong Yang from Imperial College’s Hamlyn Centre, an absolute coup for SIN as Prof. Yang is known and respected world-wide. Three British company representatives, from Shadow Robot, Rolls Royce and Aylesbury Automation, accompanied him in a packed week of meetings, talks and workshops.

“For me, it was the first time I had been to Taiwan, and I didn’t know quite how much I was going to enjoy it! The local organisation on the ground was excellent – many compliments to the British Office staff out in Taipei, and the Resident, Damion Potter. We had the support of ITRI, the major Taiwanese research institute, who helped us gain access to a range of companies and organisations from Foxconn and Acer through to specialised technology companies working in our own fields.

“The people were fabulous, the food was excellent, the weather was good, and many fruitful meetings were held. Shadow are starting several collaborations as a result of the trip, and I look forward to being back in Taiwan very soon!”

Age Does Not Matter Festival

By Sinéad Nolan

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The word retirement can summon many images, both positive and negative. What images come up for you? For me the image of people taking holidays, becoming a grandparent and enjoying life springs to mind, but also I get an image of someone sat at home all day, lonely, frail and no longer feeling of much use to society.

Simultaneously, I am aware that my brain has fallen onto a worn out stereotype. But I am not alone in my unconscious bias it seems. In fact, a survey of more than 1,600 finance sector workers found that ageism is a more widespread problem in the city of London than sex discrimination.

Perhaps this is why we need to reframe how we think of age.

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Ageing is often something that happens to other people. While the young live in denial, a world of eternal health and agility, older people are quietly aware of the reality of human limitations. Research on this topic is important to me in my role as Research and Communications officer for Three Sisters Care and CHIRON, so for this reason I attended ‘Age Does Not Matter’, a 4-day festival in the OXO Bargehouse on London’s South Bank to radically rethink the concept of age through an inspirational series of co-design labs, talks, installations, photography, stories, sound and film.

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Attending the festival yesterday got me thinking about how the old and young communicate (or don’t as the case may be), and how we can keep people integrating fully in society. For example, how we can make use of the wisdom and skills of older people? How can younger people pass on their perspectives of the world?

As part of the festival, I took part in the Workforce & Employment workshop which involved a day long brainstorm and debate session, where we came up with new ideas for how to improve the workplace and the opportunities available for older people. We looked at issues such as how to encourage older entrepreneurs, and how to create intergenerational dialogue in the workplace – all in all, we ended with some great ideas.

Some of the statistics which had come out from the research around this topic are fascinating and provide lots of insight. You can see some of them outlined in the photos below.

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For more information go to www.ageofnoretirement.org. For more information on Three Sisters Care, please go to www.threesisterscare.co.uk   

New Scientist Live 2016

By Sinéad Nolan

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One of the questions on the Mendeley Wall at New Scientist Live

New Scientist Live 2016 was a fertile and inspiring ground for science lovers. Luckily for me, it was also full of information on robots and assistive technology as well as a place that many people working on robot projects were congregating.

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The robot that can make you a cocktail

While highlights of the day included meeting Imperial College’s ‘DeNiro robot’, having a cocktail made for me by a robot, as well as meeting Pepper (the service robot who guessed my age as 23, a flattering 8 years younger) the talks on the technology stage really added to the experience.

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Nao robot at New Scientist Live

There was a fascinating talk from Dr Ruth McKernan CBE, Chief Executive of Innovate UK on The Future of Healthcare on how medicine is transforming gene therapy, cancer detection and personalised treatment. Billy Boyle co-founder of Ownstonenano also spoke about a new breathalizer which measures metabolites in our breath facilitating the early detection of cancer. Later on in the day, Irina Higgins, Research Scientist from Googles DeepMind did a talk on making AI human – complete with insights  into how a robot brain perceives something in comparison to a humans.

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Irina Higgins – Alien Intelligence: Making AI Human

In the below video I ask an organiser from the Mendeley Wall and Alzeimer’s Research UK for their opinion on the future of assistive technology.

Are Robots the Future of Care?

by Sinéad Nolan

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Pepper: Robots need love too

Elderly care is a concept we barely think about until it concerns ourselves or our loved ones, but as you may have noticed its been in the news a lot lately. The reason for this is that the over 65 population in the UK is growing. Estimated to increase 7 million in the next 20 years, soon an estimated 1.7 million people will be of an age where they require care which will create a severe workforce shortage in the care industry.

In monetary terms, this increase in population will lead to public expenditure on long term care to rise from 11.3 billion to 31.1 billion by 2032, with private expenditure to rise from 7.3 to 22.4 billion in same period. Which begs the question: how do we fill in the gaps in the care market?

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Robobear shows off his lifting skills. 

Enter care robots. Apart from the workforce shortage the current care industry is largely not fit for purpose, with people’s daily living needs going unmet.

With robots such as Paro, Pepper and ChihiraAico being produced in the past few years, care robots are not an entirely new concept. Toyota recently built a nursing aide named Robina, a ‘female’ robot, that can communicate using words and gestures. Robina’s brother, Humanoid, serves as a multipurpose home assistant. He can do the dishes, take care of your parents when they’re sick, and even provide impromptu entertainment: one model plays the trumpet, another the violin.

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Humanoid entertains the crowd

However, it still seems the idea of robots in care might take a while to catch on in the UK, with the idea still seeming quite frightening to many.

An often undervalued job in our society, the role of carer requires endless supplies of patience, commitment and hard work. Carers in the UK work deal with the literal and the figurative human waste that many of us could not, or would not want to deal with. But it is an important job, vital to millions of people on a day to day basis.

Either way, it’s seems when it comes to robotics and the future of care whether we like it or not: change is near.  

‘Robots Helping People’

An event at IET – Speaker: Professor Yiannis Demiris, posted by Sinéad Nolan.

Working on the CHIRON project, it is always helpful to attend events to see what other people are up to in the assistive technology world. With that in mind, I went to see Professor Yiannis Demiris speak at the ‘Robots Helping People’ event at the Institute of Engineering and Technology last week (11th May 2016).

Is this the future?

While many people hear the word ‘robotics in care’ and jump to conclusions based around the potential for worst case scenarios often imagined in the media (Channel 4’s Humans springs to mind), the reality at this event seemed rather different. Instead of a dystopian hell which featured robots instead of human carers, it was based more around assistive technology or assistive robotics becoming a supplement for certain basic services a carer might provide.

“I started the lab in Imperial called personal robotics for a particular reason – I have the vision that robots do not belong in factories,’ said Demiris. “They are robots that try to help us in any way they can. The reason I call them personal robotics is because one of the key issues is that we need personalisation.”

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User needs

As anyone who has undertaken a project knows, things don’t always turn out as we plan them. That is why user engagement absolutely needs to be prioritised before building anything.

In one of Demiris’ most recent projects they tried to build smart wheelchairs for children with disabilities equipped with sensors to help the user navigate a corridor. An interesting thing happened in these studies – what they found was that many got frustrated when the wheelchair was controlled externally.

One of the mistakes, Demiris says, is for the engineer to assume they know what the user wants outright – instead they need to listen to what the user wants, and think about how they build a better way to make this possible.

‘Eventually, we tried to change the behaviour of the wheelchair to match the skills of the kid that was actually driving. These wheelchairs wanted to be able to adapt to the changing profile of the user.”

Instead of controlling the user, the user controlled the wheelchair – and the adaptive system only stepped in when needed (for example, if the child was about to bump into something).

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Adaptive systems

Similarly, some of the robots Demiris designed aimed to observe how you move and tried to modify the trajectories for itself. This manifested in a robotic pair of arms that could carefully and gently help someone put their jacket on (see video here).

From an engineering stance this meant adaptive systems applicable to lots of different domains, whether it was physical cognitive, emotional or artistic.

“They all have the same underlying philosophy of getting some data from the user, building a model and adapting the behaviour to this user.

“We want to build the same technology for every person, and then the application area changes but the underlying technology stays the same. An interactive learning cycle which keeps going constantly with interaction with the user. We don’t use to one type of algorithm, we use lots.”

Challenges

One of the key issues Demiris pointed out, were the challenges in trying to build a robot that could assist people.

“One is personalisation’s – we have to explicitly model the users’ parameters so we have to be able to adjust the behaviour based on these generic internal model – and then I will change the behaviour. It’s not useful to have the same type of behaviour for everyone.

“Prediction is a key point in our work, there is no point when you are building assistive robotics using traditional AI techniques which rely on collecting all your data, doing some sort of classification, then acting.”

Instead, once Demiris and his team have a model, they try to predict what kind of assistance this particular person needs. They personalise the assistance for each individual user and constantly adapt the assistance to different users.

“If you have, for example, something that helps you walk and prevents you from falling down, it’s no use for you to fall down and then to realise, ‘Ah I should have helped!’ For us the key point is actually doing prediction and prediction means collecting all the data trying to run in forward in time, trying to see if there will be some needs later and acting before the person needs the help. “If you act when the person has already fallen down, it’s too late,” he added.

But limitations and challenges aside, Demiris is positive about the future of assistive technology in the care sector.

“The time where we can have a robot help us for a minute has passed, we are going to have robots among us for longer periods of time and they have to get to know us, to serve us better.”