A number of factors have played an important role in the evolutionary success of the human species. One of the undeniably fundamental factors has been our inherent ability to communicate. This capacity to perceive, respond to and coordinate behaviour with others has not only allowed us to survive, but also to thrive. The ERC-funded project SOCIAL ROBOTS headed by Prof. Emily Cross is aiming to gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies of how we comprehend and coordinate our actions with other people and with robots to achieve mutual goals.

The project will be combining approaches from disciplines such as Social Cognition, Social Neuroscience and Social Robotics to study populations that vary across age and cultural background. In this way, it aims to provide the most comprehensive picture to date of how a biological system that evolved to support social interactions with other people can adapt to interact with artificial agents. It will thus generate a new understanding of the underlying mechanisms and consequences of human social interactions.

Over the last decade, smart devices have become a significant part of our lives and the companies that make them are developing new and innovative ways for us to interact with them, such as digital assistants. In addition, the development of home companion robots and assistance robots for schools and hospitals is rapidly gaining momentum and is thought to become the norm in just a few years from now.

These artificial agents try to deliver behaviours that can be considered ‘social’ and how we perceive and interact with them remains largely unexplored. They provide social cognition researchers with a brand new opportunity to study how humans respond to different situations during social interaction.

Prof. Cross presenting her research at the ERC 10 years Scientific Conference.
Prof. Cross presenting her research at the ERC 10 years Scientific Conference. © Fred Guerdin

By innovatively combining psychology, neuroscience and robotics, the SOCIAL ROBOTS project aims to develop tools that will help us prepare for that future, while at the same time tackling one of the core challenges of social cognition research. It will do this by establishing a new approach for understanding how the human brain processes and responds to interactive robots, while also outlining the factors that influence how representations of robots and humans are shared at brain and behavioural levels.

The results of the project will have a wide array of implications for our understanding of the neuroscience supporting social cognition, as well as for individuals and institutions interested in social robot development. By exploring the workings of core social brain processes, the project will use its findings to build upon the development of social robots with the ultimate aim of maximising human engagement.

Follow Emily Cross on Twitter @brain_on_dance

Watch her presentation at the ERC 10th anniversary scientific conference:

This article was first published in ERC Newsletter Ideas , Spring 2017.