Tom Keighley

Software to talk with robots “could transform” industry

A new generation of software that will allow computers and robots to talk with a person is being developed by scientists at the University of Aberdeen, potentially transforming industry.

The research is being funded by a £1.1m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and scientists hope the new systems will increase efficiency both operationally and financially.

Dr Wamberto Vasconcelos from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Natural and Computing Sciences, said: “Autonomous systems – such as robots - are an integral part of modern industry, used to carry out tasks without continuous human guidance.

“Employed across a variety of sectors, these systems can quickly process huge amounts of information when deciding how to act.

“However, in doing so, they can make mistakes which are not obvious to them or to a human. Evidence shows there may be mistrust when there are no provisions to help a human to understand why an autonomous system has decided to perform a specific task, at a particular time, and in a certain way.

“What we are creating is a new generation of autonomous systems, which are able to carry out a two-way communication with humans.”

The systems use technology called Natural Language Generation (NLG), which converts complex information and data into simple text summaries.

Information and data created by the system is originally represented as symbols of mathematical logic, and the technology turns this into text to be understood by humans.

Via a keyboard, the person can “interrogate” the computer, asking it to provide further justifications for its decisions, or provide additional information for the computer to integrate into its plans.

Alternatives to the solution, or issues can then be pointed out by the human, changing the course of action.

Dr Vasconcelos added: “We hope the systems we are developing will enable a new generation of computer systems - including robots and also potentially mobile phones - which can interact with a human in useful ways, which up until now haven’t been explored.

“The resulting systems would potentially enhance efficiency - both in terms of cost and operation - in the sectors in which they could be employed.”

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