Giving The Next Generation Of Robots A Healthy Dose Of Heart And Soul

From Tokyo, Japan to Esslingen, Germany, researchers are coming up with ways to make robots more intelligent, autonomous and even sensitive. One test bot knows how to make popcorn – without burning the kernels. Another is being designed to keep senior cit

Service robot ''L2B2''
Hook me up with some love. (Arenamontanus)
Christoph Schmidt
Oliver Klempert and Thomas Jüngling

BERLIN - A group of small robots – each about the size of a hand and weighing 50 grams – lift off and fly across the room before settling down to play the title song from a James Bond movie. Four of the machines play specific synthesizer keys, while the others play a drum, cymbals, a kind of xylophone and an e-guitar. All of the machines are controlled by camera and laser scanner.

The flying musical robots, developed at the University of Pennsylvania, typify what technicians the world over are presently working on: machines with human characteristics. The goal isn't just to make them look and move like people, but to also make them as intelligent and capable of learning as their human creators.

It may sounds like science fiction, but some startling advancements have already been made. Robots, for example, have a better sense of sight and smell than they used to. Movement is still a little jerky, but new technologies for making artificial arms and legs are in the works. A successful example is the "Exohand" made by Festo in Esslingen, Germany. It's a glove worn by a human that transmits gestures to a robot.

"By remotely controlling a robot's hand in industrial contexts, complex tasks – like in risky or health-endangering environments – can be carried out," says Elias Knubben, head of Festo's Bionic Learning Network.

Researchers have found, however, that unless a robot's behavior and capabilities match a humanoid appearance, it is better if they do not resemble humans too much. People get very turned off by the phenomenon experts have dubbed "Uncanny Valley" – when robots look human but do not have developed human characteristics.

No robot has ever passed the Turing test, in which humans have to guess if they are talking to a human being or a robot. Artificial conversational partners are overwhelmingly identified as such; so far robot intelligence isn't high enough to fool real people.

Real-life transformers

But robots can already act independently. There are mobile, autonomous robots in many a factory setting. Robots also monitor gas pipelines for leaks. The University of Pennsylvania's "Foam Bot" can change its form as the situation requires, running on four legs on level ground and then morphing into a snake to squeeze through crevices.

At Munich's Technical University (TU), several robots live together under one roof. Each robot can roll through the rooms, has two arms, and is independent. And they're all quick learners. "Rosie," for example, toasts bread in the toaster, butters the toast, and tops the spread off with cheese.

Meanwhile, "James' is making popcorn, putting a pot filled with grains of corn on top of the hot stove and moving it so the corn doesn't burn. James can also go shopping and arrange purchases in the kitchen cupboards. These robots will soon be able to clean up their living space and do laundry.

To aid U.S. troops in Afghanistan over 2,000 artificially intelligent robots are in use. Many of them communicate amongst themselves and coordinate their actions. Similarly, several research institutes and companies in five European countries, along with Jacobs University in Bremen, use underwater robots. An E.U. project called "Morph" is developing robots for use in dike and harbor protection as well as in ocean research. The machines are expected to be in use by 2016.

"Under water areas pose specific challenges in 3-D mapping, because you're using ultra-sound," says Andreas Birk, head of the Robotics Group at Jacobs University. According to Birk, cooperative, sensor-equipped robots are far more reliable for the job. If the robots are registered on platforms like Myrobots.com or Roboearth.org and connected to the Internet, they can upload photographs and inform researchers about what they are doing.

Man's new best friend?

But the main priority for robot use is helping humans. An E.U. flagship project called "Robot Companions for Citizens," for example, aims to develop empathetic robots that communicate as naturally as possible with people, recognize and evaluate their environment, gather experience, identify problems and find solutions and pass the solutions on in a coherent way. An international team of 140 researchers will start implementing this project in 2013.

At Stuttgart's Fraunhofer Institute, researchers have been working on the "Care-o-Bot" for years. This robot can serve drinks independently. Ultimately he should be able to carry out other household chores, like setting the table, tidying, and cleaning.

The Stuttgart robot is presently also being tested in old peoples' homes. "We're presently working on making ‘Care-o-Bot" remotely controllable. On an integrated iPad touch screen you can see where the robot is, and tell it what task to perform next, for example pick up a water bottle, or open a door," says Fraunhofer researcher Birgit Graf.

"Dream Project," on which companies like Panasonic, Hitachi and Sharp are working along with the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, aims to create fully automated robots for use in Japan's tsunami-ravaged Miyagi Prefecture. The idea is to have the robots cultivate the land, harvest grain and vegetables, and pack them into crates.

At Microsoft, meanwhile, researchers are trying to make a robot named "Grace" increasingly human. "Grace" lives in the Smart Home at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington. During the day, she watches over the house and handles whatever comes up. When residents get back from work in the evening, "Grace" reports on what happened during the day, including what e-mails came in. "Grace" also knows recipes for the ingredients of the fridge. The machine will soon be programmed to read the papers so that it can deliver a summary of the world news over dinner.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Arenamontanus

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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