People in Bethel institutions test virtual helper developed by CITEC

Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports Bielefeld research project

In July 2010, Bielefeld University and the v. Bodelschwingh Foundation (vBS) Bethel entered an official agreement to work together. Since July 2011, this cooperation has also included an intensive collaboration between Bethel and the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interactive Technology (CITEC) from Bielefeld University. The joint research project ‘Virtuelle Assistenten und deren soziale Akzeptanz’ (Virtual assistants and their social acceptance) (VASA) is a substantial component of the collaboration between CITEC and Bethel. Since July 2013, The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been supporting a sub-project of VASA, providing 200,000 Euros.

In the opinion of Professor Dr. Günther Wienberg, member of the board of management at v. Bodelschwingh Foundation (vBS), the collaboration between CITEC and Bethel sets a precedent: ‘It is important to us that senior citizens as well as people with disabilities have access to modern technologies and can benefit from them in the same way as other people. That is why technology has to be developed so that people with impairments can use and operate them with ease. In this sense, the cooperation with CITEC enables us to directly play a determining part in the development, testing and use of assistive technologies. In this way, opportunities can be exploited, but also potential risks can be recognised at an early stage.’

‘The strategic partnership between Bethel and Bielefeld University focuses on projects which are of use to the general public’, says Professor Dr. Martin Egelhaaf, Vice Rector for Research, Young Researchers and Transfer of Bielefeld University. ‘The collaboration between CITEC and Bethel within the strategic partnership connects imaginative developments from research with the actual needs of people who require support.

CITEC tested assistant systems in Bethel that, thanks to artificial intelligence, adapt to their user. ‘The average age of the population is increasing. In the future, robots, avatars and other technical helpers will play a large part in helping people with physical or mental disabilities to live as independently as possible’, says Professor Dr. Helge Ritter, coordinator of the Center of Excellence. ‘By collaborating with Bethel, potential users can have a say in the early stages of development of artificial intelligent helpers.’ The research project, VASA, is a good example of how the early involvement of future users works. In the study, CITEC and the Bethel Foundation have been working on a virtual conversation partner that can be personalised which supports older people or persons with mental disabilities in everyday life. To this end, researchers from CITEC began with the development of a virtual assistant, ‘Billie’ in January 2012. Virtual assistants are computer systems that appear as artificial persons on screens and communicate with the viewer. ‘The project aims to increase the independence and participation of older people by making it easier for them to access computer and internet technology in everyday life’, explains Computer Scientist Professor Dr. Stefan Kopp, who runs the project with the linguist Dr. Karola Pitsch. ‘People to computer interaction with senior citizens in mind often goes together with specialist keyboards, remote control, large format displays or the employment of individual vocal commands. We are developing avatars as an alternative to this’, says Kopp.

In Bethel institutions, the robot ‘Billie’ has already been tested for its suitability for daily use and social acceptance: Older people and people with mental disabilities tested the avatar and its functions. An important result is that: ‘The test persons found it easy to use, they could communicate well with Billie and could imagine making use of him in the future’, says Karola Pitsch. Scientists have already tested how Billie can help users in Bethel institutions note down dates in an electronic diary. In the future, the laboratory prototype, which is suited for the age group, will encourage its user to make conversation, remind the user of meetings or to take medicine, help with daily planning and invite the user to get in touch with friends and acquaintances using video calls.

In the future, as well as reacting to verbal requests and questions, Billie should also be able to perceive and acknowledge non-verbal clues. If a user is holding a Post-it note with the next doctor’s appointment written on it, for example, this can be a signal for Billie to enquire about the appointment in order to note it in the diary.

The Federal Ministry for Education and Research is supporting a VASA sub-project with the title ‘VERSTANDEN’ (UNDERSTOOD). This study is specifically about enabling comprehension and therefore deals with the question: How does the virtual assistant manage to correctly recognise its users’ questions and requests?