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21 June 2022

The first trial of a Human Support Robot

Robots that understand, interpret, and adapt to human behaviour used to be the stuff of science fiction. Today, Dr Oya Celiktutan is leading work in the King’s Centre for Robotics Research in the Department of Engineering looking at how robots can learn from observing how humans relate to each other and learn, rather than simply imitating behaviour, to sense and respond to particular needs. 

Oya is Head of the Social AI and Robotics Lab (SAIR), which has attracted funding from research councils and industry. The vision of SAIR is to transform human daily life with robots, for assisting them at home, work, and public spaces. The team focuses on building cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to enable robots to perceive and interact with humans and their environment

As part of this research, Oya has been working with Toyota which is developing a Human Support Robot (HSR). In the first trial of its kind, in 2021, the HSR provided by Toyota moved into the family home of Anthony Walsh, who had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in May of that year. The robot made itself useful by bringing drinks from the fridge, passing objects such as the TV remote control, and even singing in Anthony’s voice, which had been banked in advance. He explained: 

“I think there could be a place where this robot could be there to help people in different ways with their day-to-day life. It gives you back a little bit of your independence, albeit you’re still relying on something else. This robot would actually free up time for other people to not always be at your beck and call and to have some of their own time back. It can relieve a lot of stress in the family situation.”

 As well as helping Anthony, the trial allowed the King’s team to study how the robot might work in real life and plan new research directions to address real-world challenges. The trial was supervised by King’s PhD student, Viktor Schmuck, who said: 

“This was a great opportunity for us to see the challenges when robots are used in real-world home environments and assisting people living with MND. It gave us a great opportunity to see the user acceptance of, and trust in, the robots. In the next 20 years, I see robots like HSR being deployed more and more in different environments – indoors, outdoors, and specifically in care settings where they would be placed in homes of those in need, such as people living with MND. And these robots could really alleviate the pressure on the care workers who interact with these people by mimicking the tasks they do.”

For the trial the robot was controlled by Viktor.  Oya Celiktutan, director of the Social AI & Robotics Lab at King’s, is aiming to collaborate with Toyota and the MND Association to make the robot autonomous and to develop algorithms that will enable it to “learn” how to perceive, interact with, and assist humans. In addition, the lab will seek to make such robots adapt to their users’ needs and preferences.

“One of the problems we are focusing on is how to make robots continuously learn and adapt to their users and environment,” Oya explains “For instance, how we can make the HSR robot learn which is their user’s favourite mug and then bring their tea in it.” Then there are many issues to explore around trust, ethics, privacy, and acceptance of human support robots.

Sadly, Anthony died in 2021. You can read more about the trial and view a video in the Toyota magazine .


Images of the Toyota Human Support Robot are courtesy of Toyota UK

Technology & Science

In this story

Oya Celiktutan

Senior Lecturer in Engineering (Robotics)

PhD student