LOST in a shopping centre? Unsure of your train platform or looking for information about a museum exhibit? The answers may soon be provided by a robot which can not only provide the facts but second guess the need for help by reading body language, gestures and subtle social cues that betray what we are really thinking.

Sounds far-fetched? Not according to the team of robotic experts from Glasgow University working to create the world's most "socially aware" robot using existing technology to create a machine that is able to "spontaneously interact" with strangers in public spaces such as shopping centres, airports, train stations, art galleries and museums.

By adapting the existing, diminutive, human-shaped Pepper robot, marketed first in Japan and now in the US as an "endearing companion" – bought by more than 10,000 customers paying around £24,000 – the Scottish computer scientists aim to take the technology to a new level by programming it to interact empathetically with passers by.

The main goal of the four-year-long MuMMER (MultiModal Mall Entertainment Robot) project – which also involves Pepper creators Softbank Robotics, researchers from Heriot Watt University and the Idiap Research Institute in Switzerland – is a socially-intelligent robot that will be tested in Finland's Ideapark shopping centre.

The "entertaining and engaging robot", will help lost or confused shoppers and give out information on deals or discount vouchers. The team claim the robot will have a wide range of other applications in public spaces and could even be used in hospitals and other health care settings to provide everything from entertainment in waiting rooms to triage services.

Dr Mary Ellen Foster, Glasgow University lecturer and co-ordinator of the MuMMER project, said: "Pepper is a robot that is already going into public spaces and it attracts a lot of attention but its traits are not very interactive. What it does is scripted. It's operating more like a touch screen.

"We are working on a robot that is able to have a conversation, a robot that can make judgements about who it can approach and what sort of approach it should make. In Glasgow we are looking at social signal processing and how the robot can understand those social signals.

"How can a robot tell if we want to talk or if we might be scared or avoiding it? The robot could respond by being more polite, by trying to be more engaging and entertaining, or more calm."

Already Pepper, which stands at just under 5 feet tall, can recognised the human voice in 20 languages and and detect if an adult or child is talking. Earlier this year, the robot was enrolled in classes at Shoshi High School in Waseda, in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan – making it the first robot to 'study' alongside human students and has the ability to learn.

The enhanced Peppers will be tested in the lab as well as the University's public spaces, including the Hunterian Art Gallery, before going to Finland and other partner countries, so cross-cultural comparisons can be made.

Team member Prof Alessandro Vinciarelli, also of Glasgow University, said a key challenge was creating robots with the technical capability to read human emotions in noisy and crowded public spaces such as shopping malls. Creating sensors, microphones and cameras capable of picking up non-verbal signals is one of the issues that the project will grapple with, he said.

"The [robots] have to be able to understand subtle signs that go with social norms," he added. "Is someone's body still facing in the original direction, has there been a change in facial expression, is there a change in the speed of walking? We are looking at creating a socially-intelligent machine that can understand very subtle signs."

Recent work in the development of robots has included creating machines capable of working with autistic children as well as companions, such as Paro an interactive furry seal robot developed in Japan, which aims to replicate the benefits of pet therapy.

So far all applications have been experimental though Vinciarelli claims they could be mainstream within a decade.

But he admitted that there were some risks associated with the development of robots including over reliance and threats to privacy. "Robots should work alongside humans to support them, not to replace them," he said. "And when machines can understand our emotions and are in our public spaces the entire concept of privacy needs to be re-defined."

Ben Russell, curator of the Science Museum's Robots exhibition in London, said people found robots fascinating and disconcerting in equal measure. He added|: "That sense of unease, of something you cannot quite put your finger on, goes to the heart of our long relationship with robots."