Severin Lemaignan interview: social robots to support stronger human relationships

Robotics expert Séverin Lemaignan with TIAGo robot

Interview with Séverin Lemaignan

The use of robots in different kinds of social scenarios has grown tremendously in recent years. Social robots are developed for settings including restaurants, airports, hospitals, corporations, and many more. At PAL Robotics social robotics is a key area of development, and we take part in a number of research projects in this field to help develop new use cases. We are very pleased that social robotics expert, Séverin Lemaignan recently joined the team as Senior Scientist in Social Robots. We had the chance to interview him about his career to date, how he got started in the field of robotics and how he sees the future development of social robotics.

Séverin’s research interests primarily concern the socio-cognitive aspects of human-robot interaction. He has been involved in several European projects related to social and cognitive robotics including CHRIS, DREAM and was awarded an EU H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship for his project DoRoThy(Donating Robots a Theory of Mind).

Getting started in robotics including programming and competitions

Regarding his first interest in robotics, Séverin told us, “as a child, and then teenager, I would go to summer camps in France with a small non-profit called Planète Sciences. We would do a mix of outdoor activities and science projects. I really got into building and programming small robots at that time. I then myself became a science communicator, and helped organize robot competitions like Eurobot, and after studying both mechanical engineering and AI for Education at university, I decided to start a PhD in robotics.”

Séverin Lemaignan with a small robot

Career beginnings and research in cognitive robotics and interactive robots for education

Talking about his background, Séverin continued, “prior to joining PAL Robotics I was a researcher at universities. I started my academic career between Toulouse and Munich, investigating what we call cognitive robotics: I was trying to make it possible for robots to reason about the meaning of words, while interacting with humans. I then joined a lab specializing in developing new technologies to support education. There, as a postdoctoral researcher, I helped create a team of roboticists: we designed and tested new types of interactive robots in classrooms and at home, an experience that was sometimes interesting: I remember that once when I tried to bring a new robot prototype to a nursery… the robot did not survive long!”

Research in socio-cognitive aspects of human-robot interaction and making robots useful for humans

Séverin talked more about the challenge of building robots to interact with humans, “as roboticists, one of our key challenges is to build robots that are genuinely useful to humans, and not simply expensive gadgets. This requires not only to understand really well what people need and want, but also how they feel so that the robot only interacts when appropriate. Programming the robot to automatically and correctly perceive the cognitive and social state of humans is a challenge, and I have dedicated most of the past few years to working on that – by using tools from Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as knowledge and theory from, for example, social psychology.”

“A related challenge is to program the robot to become a “good” autonomous social agent. All the time, the robot has to decide what to do, and what not to do! It is actually often a good idea to observe what humans would do in a given situation, and use that as a template for the robot. For instance, I have recently developed with my students a novel machine learning technique that makes it possible for humans to ‘teach’ the robot how to behave.”

Research on child-robot interactions in educational settings

In terms of experience working with social robots in education, Séverin told us,“as a researcher, working with children and robots is great: children are always eager to explore new tools and technologies, and they are never too shy to tell us when things do not work! This is especially important when building cognitive robots: knowing how the robot is perceived and whether the robot’s behaviours are acceptable or not is critical, and the children often give us unfiltered feedback.”

Talking further about robotics and education, Séverin explained, “in addition, robots are able to play a really important role in tomorrow’s education – as tools for teachers. For instance, a robot being used to provide one-to-one personalized tuition to a child who is struggling on one specific topic, while the teacher is with the rest of the class. This only works if we listen carefully to what the children and teachers really need, though. For instance, I’ve recently worked with autistic children to co-design with them a robot that could help them in their day-to-day life at school. Both children and teachers were very enthusiastic about it.”

Séverin Lemaignan with some toys

Joining PAL Robotics and being at the forefront of change in social robots

We asked Séverin what he is looking forward to working on at PAL Robotics, he told us, “as a researcher, I have explored and piloted many ideas, some of which have the potential of really impacting our lives, from improving the well-being of children at school, to using robots to help older adults to remain autonomous at home. Moving to PAL Robotics, one of the very few companies actually manufacturing service and social robots, is for me a unique opportunity to transform these ideas and experiments into the real world, to help bring about a transformational impact on society. And I am not talking about a 50-years horizon: in Europe, we are already deploying today social robots in e.g. care homes and hospitals through projects such as SHAPES and SPRING, and I am confident that within five years, these robots will be a common sight! By joining PAL Robotics, I want to be at the forefront of this major change!”

Séverin Lemaignan with the mobile manipulator robot TIAGo

Designing and programming social robots to be accepted, useful and efficient

Séverin talked about his overall aims for social robots to become increasingly accepted, useful and efficient, “PAL Robotics is de-facto one of the leaders in the manufacturing of service and humanoid robots. By joining the company, I hope to bring additional expertise on the ‘interaction’ side of the robots: what is the best way of designing and programming robots to be accepted, useful and efficient when they work and interact in close contact with humans. More specifically, I will lead a new ‘Social Artificial Intelligence’ team within the company, where we will develop, test and deploy new machine learning algorithms to improve the social capabilities of our robots.”

Hopes for the future of social robots and robot-supported Human-Human interactions

Finally, regarding his hopes for the future of social robotics Séverin said,“robotics is full of promises: it has a tremendous potential to improve and facilitate our daily lives. Robotics will take care of stressful or boring tasks, and allow us to spend more time with our loved ones. However, I do not want to do that at any price.”

“All my work so far has been driven by this question: instead of replacing humans, how can we use robots and Artificial Intelligence to foster stronger relationships between humans themselves? Instead of Human-Robot Interactions, what about Robot-Supported Human-Human Interactions? This might sound like a cosmetic difference, but it is not. To me, the purpose of our work is and should always be to build machines that enable and support stronger human relationships. The robot should only be a mediator, a helper.

“So my hope for the future of social robotics is that we collectively uphold these high ethical standards to develop exciting new technology that will always remain at the service of humans. And as the lead of the Social AI team at PAL Robotics, I will tirelessly work in that direction!”

We would like to thank Séverin Lemaignan for taking the time to talk with us. You can learn more about him and his previous work here. If you have any questions for Séverin or the team at PAL Robotics don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. To find out more about our social robots, including humanoid social robot ARI, and humanoid mobile manipulator robot TIAGo.

For more articles and interviews, check our blog on robotics and technology.

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