If anyone knows MiRo well, then that person would be Michael Szollosy, Research Fellow at Sheffield Robotics. He’s our regular MiRo chaperone, showcasing MiRo and his robotic companions all over the world whilst developing his research on the cultural perceptions and impacts of robots. He shares why you might be using MiRo sooner than you think!
1. Miro as a social care robot
Miro was initially developed with a particular focus on solving the problems of dealing with Britain's ageing population, and the need to provide care to ever-increasing numbers of people that need help looking after themselves. Through our work on earlier social care robots, like Paro, researchers at Sheffield Robotics developed a picture of what is needed for an effective robot than can help look after humans. (Robots are always intended to supplement human care, never replace it.)
By mimicking the behaviours and responses of animals, Miro can provide the psychological and emotional benefits of a pet, without any of the problems associated with such biological creature. For example, the worst thing that will happen with Miro if someone forgets to 'feed' it is that it's batteries will run out, which can easily be recharged; and Miro doesn't need to be taken for a walk, so its perfect for anyone who is bound to a small apartment or care home.
Future versions of Miro will also include speech- and facial-recognition, to better allow an emotional relationship with its owners, and may also include monitors to keep an eye on the vital signs of its owner, or remind them when to take medication.
2. Miro as an educational robot
It soon became clear working with Miro and taking it to museums and festivals that everyone loves Miro - especially children.
So it became clear that Miro could be an effective tool to encourage children into STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and into coding. So we're developing an educational platform for Miro, including a visual programming language (based on Blockly) that allows programmers to access most of Miro's sensors (visual, auditory, tactile, cliff, light, sonar). We want to make Miro a robot that can be programmed (at different levels) for kids in primary school all the way up to university computer science modules (and we're developing materials for the latter as we speak).
But Miro can also be used in special education situations as well. Sheffield Robotics has long been involved in research looking at the educational potential of robotics, and there is already a lot of research into using robots with special needs children, such as autistic pupils. We're in the process now of working with partners that want to use Miro in specific (as well as general) educational contexts, so we can test Miro's effectiveness in such environments.
3. Miro as a research platform
Sheffield Robotics has a keen interest in building living machines on biomimetic principles - that is, mirroring or imitating some of the features and characteristics of animals found in nature. A lot of work has gone into building Miro as a new kind of robot that is made more 'lifelike', not just in its behaviour but also in its architecture. Miro was therefore developed - or we might say, 'evolved' - like other creatures with a sophisticated brain structure: First, basic motor functions and sensory perceptions were implanted in network of circuits that were akin to mammalian brain stem. Next, we developed for Miro a more sophisticated programming that roughly mirrors the functions of the basal ganglia - that part of the brain that controls emotions, routine behaviours and voluntary functions.
The next step in Miro's evolution - which is already well underway - will involve the development of programs that mirror the function of the prefrontal cortex of the mammalian brain, that part of the brain that deals with problem solving, sophisticated decision making and social behaviour. Our developers are working on features such as speech- and facial-recognition, and a more sophisticated machine learning that means each individual Miro will not only respond to its environment but also learn from it.
Thus, because it has a brain architecture like that of a small mammal, Miro has attracted the interest of many researchers into brains, particularly those involved in the flagship European Human Brain Project. Many researchers (for example, at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, where Miro has been co-developed, and at the Institute of Biophysics in Palermo, Italy) are hoping to model certain brain functions - such as some of those of the hippocampus - through Miro. Miro's existing 'brain' structures make it easy to add certain features, such as memory or aspects of learning, so that researchers can learn more about those parts of the brain, how they function in certain animals (including humans), and how to build models that simulate those functions.
Those are just some ideas on how Miro will be used by different people in a variety of ways in the near future. But don't let it stop there! If you have any ideas on new ways we can use Miro, please let us know!
*Read Michael's full post over at robotics.7thwave.io.