A humanoid robot called Abel is being developed to help recognize and react to human emotions.

Researchers from Pisa University in Italy hope that one day Abel will be able to become a home help for people with autism and Alzheimer’s.  

Abel has the appearance of a 12 year old boy.

Its age, facial features and physical build were chosen to improve the robot’s ‘relational potential’.

“The project, Abel, started as a peculiar cooperation between technicians and artists,” says Lorenzo Cominelli, researcher at the Centro Enrico Piaggio.

“The bioengineers from the research centre, Enrico Piaggio, at the Pisa University and Gustav Hoegen from Biomimic in London with the goal to create a humanoid robot which is also a hub to study human emotions and interactions,”

The collaboration with FX artist Hoegen helped achieve Abel’s “lifelike” resemblance.

Before taking form, Abel’s frame and head structure was welded by Dutch animatronic designer, Gustav Hoegen.

His company Biomimic was established in London in 2013, and specialises in creating realistic Animatronic.

It’s thanks to this workshop that important characters were created for the George Lucas franchise Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and the humanoid robots in Ex Machina by Alex Garland (2015).

“We must absolutely say thanks to the mastery and Gustav Hoegen for the physical resemblance. A genius of animatronic a great Hollywood partner. This partnership is essential because they have the know-how on creating creatures able to arise emotion in others,” says Cominelli.

Numerous, different sized, piezoelectric motors drive Abel’s motion. More than 20 are placed under Abel’s artificial skin to create its facial expressions.

“When we face this kind of machine we often talk about empathy, it would be more correct to talk about emotional intelligence, a peculiarity of proper human beings – the skill to understand how people in front of us we are feeling,” explains Cominelli.

“With Abel, we want to investigate this, we want to know if a machine can bring one to keep a condition healthy, not just physical but also mental and emotional. This is particularly important in some branches like autism spectrum disorder or behavioural and social disorders, or even in those subjects who show a neuro-cognitive degeneration like Alzheimer’s.”  

Currently, the software relies on an external sensor that must be worn by the subject.

Cameras, binaural microphones, EEG helmets and thermo scanners are the tools that allow Abel to study and profile the speaker.

By observing parameters such as voice frequency, thermal changes on the skin visible in infrared or heartbeat frequency, human emotions can be deduced.

The next stage of development hopes to move the sensors from a subject into Abel.

Eventually, the computer based sensor could be replaced by organoids.

Arti Ahluwalia, professor of Bioengineering and Director of the research centre Enrico Piaggio, explains:

“Organoids are basically an aggregate of stem cells which self-assemble and self-organise to resemble the structure and function of a mini-human organ. In particular the brain organoids that we’ve been developing, that have been developed, in many laboratories are stem cells which have been stimulated to produce neurons and other cells of the central nervous system and therefore they self-assemble to create a mini-human brain. And, our aim, in the context of the work we’re doing with Abel is to give Abel a human brain and at the same time give organoids a body that they can actually interact with.”

Enzo Pasquale Scilingo, professor of Bioengineering at Pisa University and member of the research team that has worked on the Abel project explains robots should be seen as a potential partner in everyday life.

“For sure, there are ethical implications in using humanoid robots in our society. We must consider these robots as partners able to help us. Collaborative robots called cobots, already exist, they help us, cooperating on an industrial level. But what we want to do with Abel is in the home by having a robot partner to help an elderly person or someone with difficulties.”

Founded in 1965, the Research Centre Enrico Piaggio of University of Pisa brings together scientists and students from different areas ranging from engineering to mathematics, physics, medicine and psychology.