Archive for December, 2010

Vodcast #6 – Professor Kevin Warwick on Cybernetics


Health and Wellbeing Lunch Debate

participants at robots and avatars lunch debate at NESTA

The recent lunch debate on Health and Wellbeing explored future scenarios for old age, medicine, care and the human body, asking what sort of future should we be preparing our young people for? Robots and Avatars brought together a range of experts including Professor Raymond Tallis (Emeritus Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester) and Professor Kevin Warwick (Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University) to discuss and debate the issue.

As part of the debate participants visioned care being administered by and through robots and avatars, the development of implants that would alter the way the brain works in order to cure many common diseases, a greater life expectancy with a shorter period of ‘woe’ towards the end of peoples lives and the possibility of self diagnosis and treatment as a result of advances in medical technology.

Central to the debate were questions around the representation of humans in care scenarios. Some participants resolutely argued that there can be no replacement for human to human care, emphaising the importance of empathy in care. Others were keen to emphasise the relatively low uptake of new technologies such as telecare and mobile apps which help patients self-diagnose. Whilst participants’ personal trepidations about their own old age entered into the debate, it was also emphasized that a future of health and wellbeing where robots and avatars play an increasingly important role, is very unlikely to completely replace the human to human contact but instead would most likely serve to augment it. This area of the debate touched on many of the issues that Robots and Avatars has been exploring over the course of the Lunch Debate Series including the credibility of artificial intelligence, the need to address illusion within representational forms and thinking about the ways in which we adopt new technologies.

Another key area of the debate focused around increased life expectancy, new ways of thinking about ‘old age’ and how we might go about changing perceptions now? According to ‘most attractive model’ for the future of ageing put forward by Professor Raymond Tallis, today’s young people are expected to live longer and have better health for longer, significantly affecting the way the population ages. As such, it is clear that we will have to develop new ways of thinking about not just old age but age more generally. It’s interesting to note that the word ‘teenager’ originated in the early 20th Century and has given rise to a complex set of ideas that strongly inform the ways we relate to, provide for and deal with 13-19 year olds, now it is time for teenagers to start thinking about what they want to be called when they are fit and healthy and in their 80’s – and still with another 20 years to live.

We will be sharing video content from the Health and Wellbeing soon. To see video and reports from previous debates click here.


Virtual/Physical Play Robot

Here is an intresting article from Gizmag about The Playtime Computing System developed by MIT Media Laboratory’s Personal Robots Group. The system blends robotic and virtual interfaces and is currently designed for children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old. This blend also allows the device to be used with telepresence, enabling a play and learning to occur in real-time across continents.

children playing with the playtime computing system

As Alphabot passes through a hole in the display panel, it appears to continue its journey through the virtual world projected onto the panels. Image Source: Gizmag/MIT

In an increasingly tech-centric world, keeping kids interested in learning can be an uphill battle. With teaching that involves play recently attracting some powerful supportive voices, students from MIT’s Media Lab have developed a system which merges technology and play to stimulate young minds. The Playtime Computing system uses infrared emitters and tracking cameras to monitor the position of a special robot within a play area. As the bot disappears into a hole in a panel, it appears to continue its journey into a virtual world projected onto the walls.

The Playtime Computing system developed by MIT Media Laboratory’s Personal Robots Group is aimed at children between 4 and 6 years old and allows them to get up and about instead of sitting around and getting bored, a hot topic at the moment given Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. It also allows for early experimentation in such things as symbolic reasoning and social roles.

The system is made up of three panels with projectors behind them, and a set of four ceiling projectors for sending images to the play area floor. Alphabot, a cube-shaped robot with infrared emitters at its corners, is tracked by ceiling-mounted cameras. A virtual landscape is projected onto the panels and floor to blur the barriers between reality and the artificially-created world. To further add to the illusion, as Alphabot disappears into a hole in the panel and some robotic foliage closes behind, the image projected onto the panel appears to show it continuing its journey into the virtual world.

A set of RFID-tagged wooden alphabet letters or symbols such as musical notes was also created so that the children can stick them onto Alphabot’s face. Placing letters onto the bot results in its face changing color to match, with musical notes causing music to be played through its onboard speakers. As the robot disappears into the virtual world beyond the panel, the symbol placed by the kids will also continue through to the animated version.

International playtime

The fun needn’t stop with just one play room, however. “One of the things we’re really excited about is having two of these spaces, one here and maybe one in Japan, and when the robot goes into the virtual word here, it comes out of the virtual world in Japan,” explained the group’s Adam Setapen. “So that kind of fits in with that one-reality concept, that there’s one robot, and whether it’s physical or virtual is based on the state of the robot in the Playtime Computing system.”

Of course, kids being kids, the young prototype testers crammed lots of different symbols onto the bot, which it wasn’t developed to handle. They also expected other objects placed in the hole to appear on the screen. Future developments of the system may well take such things in stride, with children perhaps being able to send a favorite toy into the virtual world.

Maybe it would also be interesting to see how they would deal with a digital twin!

Another aspect of the system is the Creation Station, a table-top computer where youngsters can arrange objects or draw pictures. Whatever is on the Station is recreated on the panels via the projectors.

The researchers also kitted out the playful system testers with baseball caps sporting infrared emitters. This allowed the system to keep track of the kids as well as the Alphabot, which could make it possible for such things as interaction with the computer animated robot in future versions. If the team can develop the system to operate using something like Microsoft’s Kinect gaming technology, then players could be tracked without having to rely on infrared clothing.

The team says that the current prototype was put together using off-the-shelf parts at a cost of just a few hundred dollars, and believe that mass production for home use is a viable possibility.

Source: Gizmag

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