November 27, 2014      

?We?re moving more and more towards an interface like the interface
we have with each other. Our whole trend is toward ever more intimate interactions
with machines […] and with each phase, machines are doing something ever more
central to our lives.?
?Paul Saffo, technology forecaster, Stanford University

Human-robot bonding

While it is highly unlikely that the future will bring us a Bender Rodriguez, the beer-guzzling, chain-smoking, high-tech bending robot who works and lives alongside humans in the animated TV series Futurama, there definitely is more human-robot bonding ahead.

?I think people form relationships with robots quite naturally. We want a relational experience with technology. People are almost hardwired for this,? said Dr. Jodi Forlizzi, an assistant professor of design and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University?s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Her research includes social robots with a special focus on their social aspects.

curi georgia tech

Agreeing with that premise is Dr. Andrea Thomaz, director of Georgia Tech University?s Socially Intelligent Machine Lab. Her research aims to computationally model mechanisms of social learning in order to build social robots and other machines that are intuitive for everyday people to teach.

?People are wired to anthropomorphize objects. Look how many of us give names to our cars or yell at our computers. It is about intentions. We have a need to interpret each other,? Thomaz said. ?That is why we give intentions to dogs or cars or other machinery. We can?t help it.?

Forlizzi points to a study she did several years ago involving families? experiences with floor cleaning after receiving a new vacuum, either a Roomba robotic vacuum or a Flair handheld upright. While the Flair had little impact, the Roomba changed people.

?When we followed up with the families a year later, those with the Roombas had formed an emotional attachment to them, almost like a pet,? said Forlizzi.

?Will a robot be viewed as a family member? We are not close to that although there is a lot of projecting. People will have robots. Some will think of them as appliances, while others may view them as characters. Every individual is different,? said Thomaz.

Both Forlizzi and Thomaz agree on the importance of feedback from the robot.

?We take a lot of cues from behaviors and response,? Forlizzi said. ?For example, in one study, when we changed a robot?s lip color from gray to pink, women were more likely to ask it questions about topics such as dating.?

?Feedback is really important. With interactive machine learning, a person needs to know what the robot has learned. There are lots of different ways for a robot to let you know,? said Thomaz.

Where experts sometimes collide

So how essential is it that the robot be able to speak?

According to Forlizzi, dialogue may not be that a high priority.

forlizzi and snackbot

Robots don?t have to talk,? Forlizzi said. ?It is more important that they can sense or track; that they are capable of returning a gaze, for example. When robots pick up words, humans have higher expectations. When robots talk, people tend to think they are highly intelligent.?

A differing view from Forlizzi’s put forth by Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, takes the opposite position about the importance of language: “Our mind responds to speech as if it were human, no matter what device it comes out of. Futurists and researchers predict such voice-controlled software, like Siri and Google Now, will take us from understanding how to use technology to technology that understands us.”

Thomaz said her view has ?changed 180 degrees? on talking robots.

?What?s the right way? It?s a slippery slope, but I now believe the value you get from actual language communication outweighs the downside,? Thomaz said. ?You need to let the person working with it know that the robot can only speak about a few kinds of things, but it is an important channel of communications.?

Forlizzi sees the human-robot bond growing only stronger.

?Near-term, I see the advent of better sensing; robots that sense and actuate better in real time improving,? Forlizzi said. ?Consumer products are also evolving to have more computational elements.?

Thomaz envisions everyone?s home environment looking a little different to accommodate a robot.

?Robots will be in all aspects of society helping people to achieve their goals. On one level, robots are an extension of ourselves,? said Thomaz.

And don?t entirely discount the ?Bender factor? in how robots are perceived by us.

?People are also influenced by what they see in popular culture. The more they see of robots in movies and on television, the more they expect,? said Forlizzi.