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New ’emotional’ robots aim to read human feelings

(AFP) – The robot called Forpheus does more than play a mean game of table tennis. It can read body language to gauge its opponent’s ability, and offer advice and encouragement.

“It will try to understand your mood and your playing ability and predict a bit about your next shot,” said Keith Kersten of Japan-based Omron Automation, which developed Forpheus to showcase its technology.

“We don’t sell ping pong robots but we are using Forpheus to show how technology works with people,” said Kersten.

Forpheus is among several devices shown at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show which highlight how robots can become more humanlike by acquiring “emotional intelligence” and empathy.

Although this specialisation is still emerging, the notion of robotic empathy appeared to be a strong theme at the huge gathering of technology professionals in Las Vegas.

Honda, the Japanese auto giant, launched a new robotics program called Empower, Experience, Empathy including its new 3E-A18 robot which “shows compassion to humans with a variety of facial expressions,” according to a statement.

Although empathy and emotional intelligence do not necessarily require a humanoid form, some robot makers have been working on form as well as function.

“We’re been working very hard to have an emotional robot,” said Jean-Michel Mourier of French-based Blue Frog Robotics, which makes the companion and social robot called Buddy, set to be released later this year.

“He has a complex brain,” Mourier said at a CES event. “It will ask for a caress or it will get mad if you poke him in the eye.”

Other robots such as Qihan Technology’s Sanbot and SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper, are being “humanised” by teaching them to read and react to people’s emotional states.

Pepper is “capable of interpreting a smile, a frown, your tone of voice, as well as the lexical field you use and non-verbal language such as the angle of your head,” according to SoftBank.

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