What if artificial intelligent robots were designed for emotional needs?

Companion

A Story About an Unlikely Friendship

Companion is a design fiction about the bond that forms between a human being and AI robot when their two worlds collide in an unexpected way. During their brief friendship, they help each other manage the loneliness of being in an uncertain circumstance through a sense of empathy and joy.  

Role: Individual Project Studio
Timeline: 6 weeks
Tools: DelftAI Toolkit (Unity plugin), Teachable Machine (Tensorflow Lite) and Premiere Pro
Advisor: Phil Van Allen

Challenge

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was highlighted by a New York Times article about the negative psychological effects on youth. Most of the companion robots that have existed in the market are geared towards the completion of tasks instead of the emotional needs of their users. The robots that have been mildly successful are ones that possessed a greater sense of awareness of the user's whole self.

Process

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The project explores the design of AI systems that help people with difficult things. The resultant design will be done through the lens of a technology that has a specific or strange life-like personality. The robot must communicate and behave in odd ways that may seem strange to earth-based humans.

The AI robot and the human develop a relationship that is less focused on task-based interactions and more on the emotional needs of the human. This type of relationship can be accomplished through a design that molds the AI to its context through consistent human interactions, moments of education/feedback, and times when emotional connection can be communicated by the AI (i.e., trust, empathy, joy). In addition, the robot needs to embody human characteristics, such as eye contact and body movements, so a stronger bond can be formed and the human can forgive the robot when it makes a mistake. To do so, the film's AI robot character was deeply considered. Krash's personality characteristics are: humorous, curious, sensitive/introverted, clumsy, unusual, friendly, and expressive. Krash's childhood memory is when they received their big wheels after passing all the preparatory education. Their favorite thing is water, and their biggest fear is being abandoned–one they got left behind on one of their first expeditions.

Storyboard sketch #1
Storyboard sketch #2
The robot's movements and behaviors were designed in DelftAI Toolkit, a Unity plugin. The speech aspects of the robot utilized IBM's speech-to-text and text-to-speech APIs.
The creation of a TensorFlow Lite model for the robot's object recognition capabilities.

Documentation

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It is 2050 and the annual stay-at-home orders are a common occurrence on Earth, especially during the winter months when viral outbreaks are more likely. This year’s variant happens to be highly contagious and fatal so the stay-at-home order has been particularly strict and long. Ten years earlier SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic successfully established colonies and capitalist enterprises on the planet of Mars. However, over the years, many of the colonists became disenchanted with their mission and capitalist overlords, so they left their respective settlements to form their own. This esoteric, anti-capitalist, egalitarian and ecological society values the following core principles: the common good, collectivism and the reclamation of materials for reuse. Their settlement is no larger than 25 people and deeply entangled with their nonhuman entities that ensure their survival on the environmentally hostile planet. As highly educated and trained engineers, scientists and designers, the settlements relies on genetic engineering, technological hybridity and craftsmanship as the way of life. Their world is fluid, queer, mutagenic, self-expressive, and equitable. In a rare occurrence, one of the explorer’s companion robots was accidentally jettisoned from their Mars vehicle on their way to retrieve water from the southern pole of Mars, and after months of aimlessly floating around in space, the robot is drawn into Earth's gravitational pull.

Reflection

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The project explored the idea of AI being a human companion and collaborator, instead of strictly a mechanism for automation and task completion. AI robots need to be situated, possess their own unique personality and focus on enriching the lives of the human through their interactions. By understanding the use cases and context that the AI exists in helped to mold the robot’s unique personality. During the process of character development for the AI robot, current events were used to envision a future world where the characters would inhabit, thus creating conditions for possible interactions between the characters in such a world. In the end, the story demonstrates the AI robot’s unique personality and key moments when it begins to form an emotional bond with the human being.

The biggest takeaway from the project was how the images fed into the object recognition algorithm can limit its overall effectiveness and leave room for a lot of bias in its expression. Therefore, it is important that the designers and developers that are working on such projects come from diverse background themselves. Also, the algorithm requires an extensive amount of data and variety, which comes with its own challenges. The language processing (text-to-speech) sounded quite robotic and expressed little intonation. As for the speech-to-text functionality, clear and loud speech was required on behalf of the human being. In both instances, the human-to-machine interaction was not natural and free-flowing as widely communicated.

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