€2.5m awarded to Manchester experts to develop more empathetic smart robots that better understand human feelings through communication

A team of experts at The University of Manchester has been awarded major funding to help design smarter robots that will have more meaningful dialogue with humans after developing improved insight into our inner feelings through language.

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Professor Angelo Cangelosi, co-director of the Manchester Centre for Robotics and AI, a total of €2.5m (~£2.2m) as part of the eTALK project.

The Manchester research team will combine expertise in AI and psychology to focus on the fact that smart machines still only understand about a third of the meaning of human language.

To progress their ability to understand humans more fully, robots will act as ‘tutors’ to help children better understand numerical and abstract concepts. This in turn will then help robots engage more meaningfully with older generations of humans.

See also: Psychology, physics, and geometry used to make robots more intelligent


Natural means of communication


Angelo Cangelosi, Professor of Machine Learning and Robotics at The University of Manchester, explains that language is the most natural means of communication among people to talk about and share experiences – and for robots to understand and communicate with us. 

For example, humans use concrete words to describe objects and their features (e.g. ‘Look at this red pen’) and to talk about actions and events (‘I write with the pen’). However, we most commonly use abstract words to describe social situations and relationships (such as, ‘Mary likes John’), emotional states (‘I wish you happiness’), and numbers and quantities (one, two, ten, or ‘some’, ‘many’, etc.). 

Cangelosi said: “In fact, the great majority – a total of 72% – of words we use are abstract words; but today’s robots can only understand the concrete words. So, how can we have meaningful interaction with robots if they cannot understand most of the words we use?”

To meet this challenge, the ERC Advanced eTALK project will take direct inspiration from the way children and adults use and learn abstract words – and use methods from AI and psychology to develop a new generation of robots capable of communicating with people about internal feelings, numbers, and other abstract words.

Cangelosi added: “These robots will then be tested as tutors for helping children understand numerical and abstract concepts, and as robot companions to help older people have meaningful conversations and help them in everyday life.”

The award of this project builds on, and recognises, the reputation of the Manchester Centre for Robotics and AI, and the expertise of Cangelosi and his team in combining psychological concepts with AI and robotics, to design robots that positively impact society.

The ERC has announced the awarding of 218 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the Horizon Europe programme. The grants – totalling €544 million – support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

The ERC Advanced Grant funding is among the most prestigious and competitive EU funding schemes, providing researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. They are awarded to established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant research achievements over the past decade.

Image: Face-to-face communication: Angelo Cangelosi and a team from The University of Manchester have been awarded funding to develop the next generation of smart robots who will be able to better understand humans by appreciating our feelings through improved language skills. © The University of Manchester.