ABU DHABI // Researchers have gone to huge lengths to make robots more human-like, smoothing out their synthetic speech and giving them convincing facial expressions and body language.
But now that scientists have, for the most part, built robots that can hold a conversation, the challenge is to make them empathetic, or able to discern emotions.
Ultimately, researchers want robots to know when they should be happy and when they should be sad.
The hope, says Dr Nikolaos Mavridis, is that emotionally intelligent machines can eventually take on responsibilities such as educating children, comforting the elderly and persuading a customer to buy.
Dr Mavridis, who in recent years has gained international attention for his Arabic-speaking "humanoid" robot Ibn Sina, says his latest research will focus on those goals.
Ibn Sina can already recognise faces and is linked to Facebook, making it possible to carry on conversations with people it meets based on information from profiles.
Dr Mavridis, who built the machine while the director of UAE University's interactive robots and media laboratory for four years, will be working on a new set of projects at New York University Abu Dhabi's new computer science labs in Musaffah this autumn.
Scientists have already made progress in programming robots to recognise a smile or a wrinkled brow to gauge a person's mood.
They can also analyse human voices and measure body indicators such as breathing or the amount of electric activity in the skin.
The next step is affective computing, or connecting that recognition with other cognitive systems to update the emotional state of the robot, Dr Mavridis says.
When it senses frustration, for instance, it should adjust its body language and tone of voice. When it perceives vulnerability, it could soften its facial features and say something reassuring.
"Understanding what people are feeling in the context of interaction could be important in education, as well as in sales or advertising to monitor and persuade a buyer," Dr Mavridis says.
Dr Rajiv Khosla, the director of the Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, agrees robots could play an important role in a wide range of human services once the technology for human engagement is strong enough.
Dr Khosla's team is working on a robot meant to offer companionship to the elderly.
"The robot can play games and ask a range of questions, but it also needs to recognise emotional responses just as we do in social situations," he says.
"If it recognises feelings of anxiety, or loneliness and isolation, it can say something comforting and automatically send a message to relatives or friends to get in touch to lift the person's mood."
Dr Khosla points out that emotionally intelligent technology has also been recommended for specialised ways of improving the social skills of children with autism.
"The whole idea is using the technology to improve the quality of life and social issues, not just technology for technology's sake," he says.
To show his robots' emotional range, Dr Mavridis says he plans to stage a theatrical production in Abu Dhabi and international cities in the next couple of years. The performance would include robots, some of which would be controlled remotely, and humans.
The idea is to "get people to imagine what the world will be like 50 to 100 years from now, when these technologies will be a part of our everyday life", Dr Mavridis says.
He also plans to research possible applications for unmanned aerial vehicles in the Gulf.
"We are playing with the idea of robots in the air, on the water or under the water, perhaps to transport physical material if there was an accident or disaster," Dr Mavridis says. "They could be used as courier pigeons or hawks."
In another effort to make the UAE more visible on the international stage, he plans to build a UAE team for the international Robocup competition, an annual football tournament played by machines designed to promote artificial intelligence and intelligent robotics research.
The original mission of the competition was to field a team of robots that would be capable of winning against the human football World Cup champions by 2050.