Why Robots Need Faces: the Rise of Service Robotics

Roboticists have been putting faces on robots for a long time, but it’s only recently that scientists have started to understand how beneficial this is, according to Plymouth University professor of cognitive systems and robotics Tony Belpaeme.

Speaking at the RE.WORK AI & Robotics Innovation Forum in London today, Belpaeme explained how faces on robots are not just cute, but actually serve an important function.

People connect with robots far more easily if they can anthropomorphise them, which is going to become particularly important as robots enter more and more service roles.

“Faces are necessary [for robots in service roles],” said Belpaeme. “Without them, they are seen as less positive and less trustworthy.”


At present the majority of robots are in roles that do not require human interaction, such as manufacturing. However Belpaeme sees significant potential for robots in roles where interaction with humans is paramount.

One area where robots could make a real difference is education.

The benefits of one-to-one tutoring are significant: Belpaeme referenced Bloom’s 2 sigma problem – the observation that children who are privately tutored perform two standard deviations better than those who are only taught in classroom sessions, which is equivalent to being above 98% of children taught conventionally.

But although this is known it has never been acted on because of the costs involved: private tutoring is just too expensive to provide on a large scale. However, robots could bring tutoring to all children at an affordable cost.

Undoubtedly some sceptics will question the effectiveness of robot tutors, and there is research going on at present to assess this. One such project is the EU-based Emote project, which is researching the use of empathy-based robotic tutors (pictured above).

However, there is already some evidence to show the benefits of robots as tutors. Belpaeme cited a study where onscreen learning was assessed and compared on its own, with an onscreen robot and with a physical robot providing tutoring. The physical robot was found to be much better than the onscreen robot, suggesting that a suitably friendly-feeling robot could provide an acceptable alternative to a real-life tutor.


Education isn’t the only area where robots with faces can play a role. Baxter, a manufacturing and factory robot manufactured by Rethink Robotics (pictured at the top), has been given a face to make him intuitive to use, with a variety of expressions making his operation common-sense.

Elsewhere anthropomorphic robots have been used for health purposes. They show significant promise in “compliance” roles, such as encouraging patients to stick to specific diets, and have been found to be beneficial for autistic children.

A particularly remarkable example that Belpaeme discussed was the case of an eight year old boy undergoing rehabilitation after a severe stroke. Having shown very limited response to therapy, the boy was introduced to a NAO robot (the same type use by the Emote project), which practitioners used to conduct his physiotherapy.

The NAO robot demonstrated the physical exercises that the boy emulated, and just six days later he had recovered enough to be discharged from hospital.

Featured image courtesy of Rethink Robotics.

First body image courtesy of Emote.

Second body image courtesy of Aldebaran Robotics.

Robotics’ answer to Raspberry Pi lets you build a robot army on the cheap

This adorable little robot, called LEO, has been designed for hackers, educators and those who want to be able to hone their skills with mobile machines.

The robot kits allow all sorts of adaptations, including the addition of a Raspberry Pi, user controls, quick change wheels and more. Included in the array of options is smartphone control which will help to enable the robot to travel anywhere.

The technology is also controllable with cult open-source prototyping platform Arduino.

It has recently appeared funding website Kickstarter and has already had several backers pledging money to make the project a reality.

Ambitiously, the project is trying to raise a total of £50,000 for the production of the robots, with the hope that the product will help to improve people’s knowledge of coding and development.

Creative Robitics Ltd, a company that makes creative products for robots builders, is the behind the hackable robot.

It hopes the campaign will be successfully funded in April and by August the assembly, testing and packaging for shipping to backers will be completed. The parts for LEO are to be made in China and assembled in the UK.

The company says: “Leo is designed for experimenters and tinkerers. It includes two headers for standard hobby servos which can be used to create pan/tilt systems for mounting sensors or for experimenting with more advances steering using servos or ‘Mars rover’ style rocker suspension.

“We even made sure that the battery holders on the LEO pcb can be located in several positions so you can play around with the weight distribution and make room for floor sensors and suspension systems.”


Backers who decide to pledge more than £715 will receive a swarm of 6 LEO robots, each with four wheels. This could be useful for those who want to use the robot in teaching research or workshops, as well as being ideal for budding evil overlords.

Their Kickstarter page says the product will transform the way people play, learn and experiment with mobile machines.

“As well as operating as a standalone robot you can also use LEO as a base for a more sophisticated controller like the Raspberry Pi or you can fit a WiFi, bluetooth or Zigbee module for control via WiFi or Smartphone,” the page reads.

“LEO is designed to be hacked, customised and generally messed around with. The flexible yet simple design combined with our HUB-ee™ wheels opens up a new world of creative possibilities for experimental robot builders and tinkerers.”

Images courtesy of Creative Robotics Ltd.