February 14, 2012      

Hanson Robokind has been on a mission to make a robot that is as human-like as possible, including the use of a patented type of skin known as ?frubber,? so that the robot?s face duplicates skin and muscle movement and creates realistic facial expressions. The idea, says CEO Fred Margolin, is to build a robot of three feet or less in size that can interact with children, especially ones who are autistic, to capture and hold their attention and deliver material in a ?non-judgmental way.

?We?ve seen a fascination from all levels, but an amazement factor from kids,?? he explains of his decision to focus on the education market. ?They take them in a lot of cases, completely seriously as full humanoids rather than robots. It?s a deeper level of fascination.? Margolin sees no negatives to encouraging a human emotional attachment to robots, because his goal is that they be used to teach and deliver messages.

Robot designers say the purpose of robots is to make people?s lives better and that they are more comfortable working with things if they can imagine they are like them. The more human traits the robots possess the more effective they can be, especially with vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.

?Let?s face it; people name their cars,?? says James P. Gunderson, Ph.D, chief technology officer of Gamma Two Robotics, which has been developing home assistance robots that are specifically designed to increase emotional attachment. ?We could try to convince people it?s just software, but they?ll fight back. They want it to be something they can relate to.?

Gunderson likens the attachment people feel toward robots to how they view their pets. In the case of a dog, for example, ?They immediately envision he?s interested in that noise or he?s sad that I hurt myself. People do that automatically, and rather than fight that we?re [encouraging that] to help them work more effectively with the robots.? He points to a 2007 study by a Georgia Tech professor that found some owners of Roomba vacuum cleaners gave them nicknames, traveled with them and even dressed up the disc-shaped vacuums, made by iRobot Corp. More recently, the Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot announced in October that it has developed software that allows robots used in the military to drive a predetermined distance without the need for an operator overseeing its movement, as well as a feedback feature that will cause them to go in reverse when necessary. Robert Moses, president of the company?s government and industrial robots division, was quoted by Defense News as saying ?If you?ve ever had a bird dog, that?s what we want. You really want to have a relationship with the robots.?

But not everyone is a proponent of encouraging emotional attachment between humans and robots. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, author Sherry Turkle writes that she is uneasy about humans substituting real connections for those with robots. ?Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.? Turkle says she is ?troubled by the idea of seeking intimacy with a machine that has no feelings, can have no feelings, and is really just a clever collection of ?as if? performances, behaving as if it cares, as if it understood us.?

In the book, Turkle also discusses the fact that people are ?willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets, but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners,? but that they don?t seem to care what artificial intelligences understand of the human moments that might be shared with them, thus skirting the notion of intimacy. ?People seem comforted by the belief that if we alienate or fail each other, robots will be there, programmed to provide simulations of love,?? Turkle writes. ?Our population is aging; there will be robots to take care of us. Our children are neglected; robots will tend to them. We are too exhausted to deal with each other in adversity; robots will have the energy. Robots won?t be judgmental. We will be accommodated.?

One elderly woman viewed her robot dog as better than a real one because it wouldn?t betray her or die suddenly and abandon her, she notes. Turkle writes that people are psychologically programmed ?not only to nurture what we love but to love what we nurture,? and acknowledges that ?even simple artificial creatures can provoke heartfelt attachment.?

Help at home

That is what designers like Gunderson and Margolin are banking on. Gamma Two Robotics? goal is to build robots that can be used to in people?s homes to assist the elderly who want to stay in their houses longer, as well as provide assistance to people with mobility problems and improve their quality of life.

But like Turkle, Louise Gunderson, company CEO, also believes the potential attachment can be a slippery slope. ?We get asked about once a month to build a friend, a companion,? she says. ?I find that a bit disturbing because it implies to me that some set of humans will bond to the robot instead of humans.? However, she adds that ?It?s a small population?I?m not worried about most people.?

Gamma Two?s indoor service robots, which are in production, have a cylindrical shape with a broad top that is similar to a table on wheels, Jim Gunderson says, and are designed to navigate in close quarters around both furniture and people. There is also one named Wilma, for wheelchair level mobility aide, that is designed for people in wheelchairs to be able to perform functions like pulling laundry out of a dryer and then placing a basket on top of the robot to carry somewhere. The home-based robots will sell for around $40,000 and are targeted for release within five years.

If a robot does what it is asked to do, such as carry a laundry basket, remind someone to take their medication, or tells them they left the TV on, that interaction is much closer to the ones people have with living beings than the interactions they have with their rake or a broom, says Jim Gunderson, so it?s easier to relate to the robot. The ability for the robot to move and accept orders seems to be enough for humans to form an attachment to it, he says.

Margolin also believes senior citizens would do well with robots. ?It gives them entertainment and companionship,?? he says. For the children of the elderly there is an added bonus: Margolin says they can observe what is going on in the house on a computer through the robot for reassurance that their parent is OK while they are gone rather than have to worry about leaving them alone.? Researchers have ordered robots from Hanson RoboKind that will be used to help elderly people with depression and loneliness issues, he says. The robots are being priced at between $8,500 and $14,750, and the first ones will be delivered in January 2012.

?People respond to things that they have a mental model of,?? notes Louise Gunderson. ?We?re trying to build a robot so people can build an easy mental model of their behavior.? The easiest way to do that, she says, is to anthropomorphosize the robot. Gamma Two is also designing a robot that the Gundersons say will help socialize people who have dropped out of society or those with cognitive disabilities, such as returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, some of whom need help assimilating back into their social environment.

Louise Gunderson also foresees a time when people will establish relationships with the robots they work with because they can be ?teammates.

Interactions with children

Hanson RoboKind?s robots have a two foot body and four interchangeable heads, dubbed Einstein, Zeno, Alice and Geo. The robots have been built to walk, sit, talk, dance, pick up objects, avoid obstacles and jump and kick. Children are a good market for robots, because it is easy to capture their attention and deliver material in a non-judgment way, Margolin says.

?A lot of people relate physically to faces and expressions,?? he says. For autistic children, the robots are trained to be empathetic and smile, which he says puts a more effective emphasis on messages they are trying to deliver. ?It?s a huge advantage to have a real face doing it. After a while it?s a pal,?? and autistic children can relate to them in a way they often can?t to other children, he says. Margolin believes high school students will also respond well to the robots because of the fascination factor and the challenge of trying to get them to work. Older students view the robot as more of a machine, but they still relate to it a little bit, he maintains.

?Children and elderly in particular enjoy [interacting with robots] because they are, shall we say, weaker psychologically many times,?? says Dr. Nancy B. Irwin, who specializes in psychotherapy/clinical hypnosis. Interacting with a robot ?allows them to really feel empowered.?

But Turkle issues a note of caution as the world of humans and robots more deeply collide. ?For the performance of caring is all that robots, no matter how sociable, know how to do.?