Robots that can Better Understand and Serve Us by Viraj

Dr. Viraj Muthugala

We have long been fascinated with Robots that mimic human behaviour and understand our needs, inspired no doubt, by Hollywood's imagination and creativity. Though we are yet to achieve a heroic Optimus Prime or a resourceful R2D2, recent years have seen reports of significant advances in this direction, with the likes of Hanson Robotic’s ‘Sophia’, May field Robotic’s ‘Kuri’ and Honda’s ‘E2-DR’.       

Dr. A.G.B.P. Jayasekara

However, real-world robots have still not quite reached that stage, leaving researchers, much room for improvement.

Viraj Muthugala, under the guidance of Dr. Buddhika Jayasekara has identified such area as a robot’s ability to interpret natural human language. He says, “Humans tend to speak in subjective terms. We may say go near the sink, but exactly how near is near? 1cm, 1 meter or something else altogether? We may intuitively understand what near means, but a robot must interpret it based on the environment, what’s there and what’s happening.

Speed Read

  • Moratuwa researchers develop MiRob,
  • MiRob can interpret uncertain human language and gestures
  • Improved robotic movement based on a map generated based on surrounding

Viraj set out to shed some light on this problem in his journey towards a PhD. Specifically, he has focused on interpreting uncertain information for navigational purposes in robots in the service space. As such, these service robots will be able to perform better in care giving, hospitality and entertainment - related services in following the commands of their human mastersIn phrases such as go near the sink, there is no definitive benchmark to measure the relativity of the term near, but is strongly dependent on the spatial arrangement of the environment. A gap exists in the knowledge on how a robot could interpret such uncertain information in order to successfully respond to a request, something that is vital for effective human-robot interaction.

This research has employed an intelligent service Robot named the Moratuwa Intelligent Robot (MiRob). Using fuzzy-logic and fuzzy neural networks, Viraj explained, "MiRob is able to look at its surroundings in terms of object arrangement, object size and room size, and to create a map of its present indoor environment. With this map, it decides how far to go and in which direction". User feedback is used to further adapt the robot's response to the user, i.e. what each individual user may perceive as near, far, etc. It is also beginning to understand human gestures, in its latest phase of development.  MiRob uses Google’s voice recognition software, visual and depth sensing software and other distance sensing mechanisms to work as its ears, eyes and other sensations.

Viraj's work has been well received by the international robotics community. He has presented his research at top conferences in areas such as Intelligent Robots and Systems, Fuzzy Systems, Robot and Human Interactive Communication, Robotics and Automation, held in Sweden, Korea, Italy, Canada, China,and Spain.

1During his studentship, Viraj received grants from the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka, IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, IEEE Computational Intelligence Society and European Society of Fuzzy-logic and Technology to support his travel to conferences.

Viraj completed his secondary education at Bandaranayake College, Gampaha, and entered the University of Moratwa in 2009. He graduated with 1st class honours in Electrical Engineering in 2014, and opted to continue towards a doctoral degree under the supervision of Dr. Buddhika Jayasekara. Dr. Viraj Muthugala is determined to continue his journey to establish himself as an eminent researcher in robotics, and has accepted an offer from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) for a Research Fellowship. Dr. Jayasekara, a graduate of UoM himself, obtained his PhD from Saga University, Japan, in 2007.

His passion is to build Intelligent Service Robots, and leads an active research group employing a number of undergraduate and postgraduate students in the department of Electrical Engineering. His group is currently supported by research grants from the University's Senate Research Committee (SRC) and the National Research Council of Sri Lanka (NRC). Dr. Jayasekera added, ”I focus on enhancing human friendly, human like functions of robots and their interactions with humans for giving a better service. I’m happy that I have started the journey by supervising a dedicated, capable student.


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