Developed by IIT-D alumnus, they are integral part of many Australian households

At a hall full of students at IIT-Madras on Tuesday, as two baby-faced, chubby, big-eyed robots dance to Lady Gaga and old Bollywood songs, ‘emoting’ with green, red and yellow lights and subtle body movements, the audience cannot help but join them in shaking a leg.

These robots, exhibited at the institute as part of its technical fest, Shaastra 2014, are here with a purpose. Designed by Rajiv Khosla, an IIT-Delhi alumnus, these ‘social robots’ — Charles, Sophie, Matilda, Betty, Lucie and Jack — are an integral part of many households in Australia. They engage the elderly, helping them combat social isolation and mental conditions such as dementia.

Mr. Khosla heads the Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia. He and his team of researchers, with help from Japanese electronic giant NEC, have been working on designing emotionally-intelligent robots.

“As soon as an elderly person gets up, she can ask the robot to dance to her favourite song. The robot can also tell the weather, read the paper, send emails, make calls or remind you to take your medicines,” says Mr. Khosla.

They can also sense if a person is anxious and evaluate the condition of a patient through her responses, and make required calls or send pictures, he says. 

“Their engaging presence not just cheers up the elderly, it also provides some relief to caregivers. We have also seen cases where children and grandchildren begin visiting their elderly parents more because they are happier now, and there is a new, interesting member in the family,” he says.

The attempt of the project is to humanise technology and use the modalities of human communication to enrich lives of people. “The robots are not there to do your work for you. They won’t make coffee for you, but will enrich your life with some meaningful engagement centred on wellness,” says Mr. Khosla. The robots are also being used at workplaces and as care-givers to children.

“And single women love them. They can come back, and these robots will tell them everything that was interesting on Facebook today, or even keep their favourite shows downloaded for them,” he says.

The robots, as of now, speak Hindi among the Indian languages. “Very soon, they will start dancing to Tamil songs. I have already taught them to say ‘nandri’ and ‘inga vaa,’” says Mr. Khosla.