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Prof. Johan Hoorn won Huibregtsen Prize 2020 with his robotics research project ‘Alice’

16 Oct 2020

We are proud to announce that Prof. Johan Hoorn received the Huibregtsen Prize 2020 at the award ceremony that took place on 5 October 2020 in Haarlem, The Netherlands, with a live stream available to the guests. Prof. Hoorn successfully outcompeted other scholars who perform scientific research on different social concerns, including COVID-19 new treatment options, malaria vaccine, adolescent overweight, and nitrogen threats to nature. He shared the honour with Prof. Elly Konijn of Vrije University Amsterdam for their robotics research project ‘Alice’.

Social loneliness is a major problem in an ageing society. Prof. Hoorn and Prof. Konijn have therefore developed ‘Alice’, a robot girl that helps to cope with loneliness among older adults. ‘Alice’ is regarded as an electromechanical grandchild. She relieves loneliness and improves the quality of life by being a companion to older adults, chatting with them and responding empathically.

Can robot friendship replace the human counterpart in a social relationship? How will people respond to an artificial object while they know it is not a real human being? What does a robot need to understand others and how to show empathy? Which social role should a robot play to counter loneliness among the elderly? How do we make a robot understand social-emotional language instead of just following instructions? These questions also are investigated in the project ‘Alice’.

“As is, Alice’s performance is based on a mix of artificial intelligence and remote-controlled human interference when a conversation goes astray. Currently, we work on language understanding rather than processing,” said Prof. Hoorn. “Over time, we hope such robots can be used for many social challenges in healthcare, education, and services.”

The special feature of ‘Alice’ is highly recognised by the jury of the Huibregtsen Prize. In the Jury Report, “The jury unanimously opted for an innovative approach with an impressive result. An integral success story. The particularly passionate approach to a pressing problem. An impressive combination of in-depth, fundamental research and application of knowledge with global impact. Teamwork that outside the scientific comfort zone answers questions and raises others. This scientific and social project is based on an impressive combination of disciplinary expertise and raises deep questions about possible relationships between humans and machines, but also about empathy and moral reasoning. ‘Alice’ is the product of team science, which stimulates the social discussion about social robotics with the use of citizen science and the impact on politics and business. Deep fundamental questions, a highly relevant application, and brilliant science communication.”

Prof. Hoorn started his research in the humanities, focusing on fictional characters. After he joined the Department of Computer Sciences of Vrije University Amsterdam, he ventured into avatars and game characters. He later turned to social robots as the universal interface between the digital and the analogue world after implementing several cognitive models in artificial systems. At PolyU, Prof. Hoorn furthers the Robot Brain Server, which handles data, data security, artificial intelligence, and cloud access to make the robot a safe and trustworthy confidante to its user.

The Huibregtsen Prize was established in 2005 by the board of the Stichting De Avond van Wetenschap & Maatschappij (The Evening of Science & Society Foundation) in The Netherlands and named after Ir. Wouter Huibregtsen. All public organizations for scientific research in The Netherlands are invited to submit entries. A minimum of four and a maximum of six projects are selected to enter the final stage annually and the prize ultimately goes to a recent groundbreaking research project that combines scientific quality and innovation with clear social relevance.

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