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Emotional Machines: Research Project on Interaction between People and Robots

Japanese Studies Scholar Elena Giannoulis Receives ERC Starting Grant for Project on Technological Transformation of Intimacy in Japan

№ 311/2016 from Sep 22, 2016

Prof. Dr. Elena Giannoulis, a junior professor of Japanese studies at Freie Universität Berlin, is receiving a Starting Grant amounting to 1.5 million euros over five years from the European Research Council (ERC) to investigate human-robot interaction. Giannoulis will deal with the increasing ability of robots and other affect-reading devices to detect and interpret emotions in humans and to interact with humans on an emotional level. One of the theses of the project is that this interaction will change both the state of scientific knowledge about human emotions as well as the emotions themselves. In addition, the project considers the possibilities for emotion robots to increase the human ability to form affective bonds with machines, in particular, outside of traditional social structures. This study focuses on Japanese society, where robots that can communicate with humans increasingly play a role in everyday life. The study will also investigate the consequences of this development with regard to intimacy as a fundamental component for the formation of social structures.

In addition to analyzing the cultural and literary narratives in Japan that inspired the creation of so-called emotion robots, this project will also take an anthropological approach to address the changes in family structures and communities that in part has inspired the use of robots in households. Elena Giannoulis and her team are collecting quantitative and qualitative data to explore new possibilities for emotion robots to form relationships, to investigate what forms of intimacy arise in the process, and how robots can create a new access to their own emotions by measuring affective data in humans such as heart rate and skin conductance.

Giannoulis's interdisciplinary project will deal with the technical aspects in the field of robotics, especially in the field of emotional artificial intelligence. The researchers in her group will program applications for emotion robots in robot laboratories in Japan, the USA, and Europe and investigate what models of emotion are installed in these machines as well as how affective computing is utilized. They are particularly interested in the capacity of emotionally intelligent robots to “learn” from their users by collecting data from interactions and analyzing it through artificially intelligent cloud computing.

The emotion robot Pepper, for example, which is a joint production of two private companies, Softbank and Aldebaran, saves the emotions it collects from its human interaction partners on a shared server, a cloud. All of the existing Pepper robots are connected to this cloud. This way the robots, which are already autonomous, collectively "learn" how to improve their emotional reactions. Their developers also work with these data.

By combining approaches from historical and literary studies with anthropology and science and technology studies, the researchers involved in this project aim to add to the base of knowledge already available on the various intersecting zones between human and robot emotions in the areas of culture, literature, households, and laboratories. The aim of the project is to better understand the dramatic social changes, which up to now have hardly been studied in the humanities, as well as the ethical, political, and legal consequences in Japan and Europe.

The European Research Council awards ERC Starting Grants to fund particularly innovative and pioneering projects proposed by early career researchers. This year 325 projects with total funding amounting to 485 million euros were approved Europe-wide. Germany and the United Kingdom are the two countries that received the most ERC Starting Grants, with 61 and 59 respectively going to projects in these two countries. Eighty projects were selected in the area of humanities.

Further Information


Prof. Dr. Elena Giannoulis, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of East Asian Studies - Japanese Studies and Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies, Tel.: +49 30 838 52749, Email: