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Prof. Nadia Thalmann with her social robot Nadine. Under the theme “Materials and technology for a digital future”, researchers from Europe, the US and Asia presented their latest innovations in Linköping in September. (Photograph: Nadia Thalmann)
0 Comments Nov 16, 2017 | News Europe

From organic electronics to social robots: Digital pioneers illustrate the future

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LINKÖPING, Sweden: The digital future—or what it could possibly look like—came alive in the present at the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Jubilee Symposium at Linköping University (LiU). Held earlier this autumn as one of six symposia to celebrate the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the event featured pioneering research and prototypes in the field of digital technology that are poised to shape and change people’s lives in the near future.

Among the novel achievements presented was a thin, pressure-sensitive material that aims to mimic human skin, in both appearance and functionality. “We are on the threshold of an era in which electronics will become part of our bodies. Wearable electronics will change our lives, and the relationship between us and the world around us,” said Prof. Zhenan Bao, who is from Stanford University in the US and part of the Stanford Wearable Electronics Initiative.

According to Bao, the research in this field, which she called elastonics, requires expertise from many different disciplines and could one day enable the creation of self-healing materials, among other innovations.

Breakthrough research was also presented by local scientists. LiU researchers Prof. Magnus Berggren and Dr Eleni Stavrinidou described how they had been successful in connecting organic electronics and human nerve cells. As one of the many examples of how this technology could be used, they demonstrated a tiny ion pump used to disrupt pain signals. Further developed, the technology may find application in the relief of chronic pain, the researchers said.

Presenting the latest in robotic technology was Prof. Nadia Thalmann, who works at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Thalmann has developed a robot with social skills whom she christened Nadine. The robot is able to interact with people and can, for example, distinguish different moods and tones. According to Thalmann, Nadine’s speech synthesis function is more advanced than that of Apple’s Siri assistant, as Nadine “knows” who she is talking to and remembers previous conversations.

“When she recognises me, she may ask me how my daughter is. She remembers me: she has a relationship with me and is interested in what I do,” explained Thalmann. However, there are plenty of challenges in advancing Nadine’s social functions, the researcher emphasised. So far, the robot can follow one person at a time and shift focus from one person to another during a conversation. Yet, Nadine cannot cope with these decisions when many people talk at the same time. The goal for the robot is to be able to function in social contexts, which involves understanding behaviour, feelings and social rules and responding to them appropriately, Thalmann said.

Currently, Nadine is “working” at ArtScience Museum in Singapore, where she interacts with visitors. “No-one is afraid of Nadine. Children who visit the exhibition can’t get enough of her: they don’t want to leave,” Thalmann said. Further research will experiment with different types of speech synthesis and models of personality. Right now, the researchers are working on a male robot, Charlie.

In the future, robots with social functions such as Nadine could be used for looking after and stimulating elderly people and patients with dementia. In dentistry, the MEDi robot developed by US company RxRobots has already been successfully used in the paediatric dental setting since 2015. The robot helps distract children with initial anxiety and fear, thereby enabling the dental team to continue with their work with less interruption.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is one of Europe’s largest private research funders. The jubilee symposium in Linköping was received enthusiastically by both the audience and the organisers alike. “Today has given me a great deal of inspiration. It’s not often that I can sit and listen for a full day, but this has been truly interesting and exciting,” commented LiU Vice Chancellor Prof. Helen Dannetun on the successful event.

“I am impressed and fascinated by research that leads to discoveries that we didn’t even know that we were looking for,” said Peter Wallenberg Jr, Chairman of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. “Some Swedish universities are exceptional, and Linköping is one of them. This is a relatively small university which focusses on a few areas, and is doing an excellent job with limited resources,” he added.

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