A theater arts professor, a mechanical engineering student, and a small robot all meet in a classroom. That's not the opening line of an obscure joke -- it's what actually happens inside UT-Arlington's new Emotional Robotics Living Lab.
"When we look at them, I think that's part of why we're sort of wired to connect to these machines," said Dr. Julienne Greer, an assistant professor of theater arts and social robotics at UTA, who also serves as the lab's director. "Because we do start to see human characteristics that we bond with."
"I was truly amazed [by the robots]," said Jugal Buddhadev, a mechanical engineering graduate student at UTA, who works in the lab.
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With the help of two robots named NAO and Pepper, their goal is to find new ways the humanoid machines can connect with people on an emotional level, potentially improving human brain function and mental health along the way.
Given her background, Greer thought theater might be the way to achieve that -- more specifically, Shakespeare.
"Theater arts is a discipline of connection, empathy, voice, movement, relationship -- and in the end trust," said Greer. "I think it's stimulating. I think by utilizing arts content it's more life-like."
She and her team, as well as researchers from UTA's School of Social Work, recently completed a collaborative study where they had senior citizens interact one-on-one with NAO, reciting Shakespearian sonnets with the robot.
The results were promising.
“There was, in that small sample, a decrease in depression and an increase in engagement," said Greer. "And we find that very exciting – so much so that we’re now expanding that particular study.”
That's where they see a potential role for Pepper -- acting out full scenes from Shakespearian plays with people.
"A part of what we do here is make the robots more intelligent," said Buddhadev. "At the --"
"Sorry, I don't get it," interrupted Pepper at that exact moment. "Let's talk about something else."
It's clear they still have some work to do. But as they say, if emotional robotics be thy food of love, play on.
“These machines are being built to help human beings," said Greer.
The team will soon begin working with adults who are showing signs of early cognitive decline. They hope the robots will have a positive effect on them as well.