Robots: friends or foes? Companions or competitors? I’m not sure the debate will ever truly be settled, but one thing most of us will agree on is that the use of robots will only continue to become more widespread as the years pass. There are even a couple on the ISS right now, and one is there to test whether its presence helps keeps the isolation and loneliness of the astronauts at bay. Even though most mechs are used in factory and military operations, robots designed to interact socially with humans—the Jetson’s maid Rosie is probably the earliest culturally pervasive example—will become more and more a part of our daily lives. What will that mean for society? Is it possible for us to interact with our automated counterparts in anything approaching a natural, comfortable way? Time will tell, but researchers are trying to come up with answers sooner than that.
Six universities in Bristol and Bath plan to test human-robot interactions. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the project, Being There: Humans and Robots in Public Spaces, will test the possibilities of sending robot emissarys to places people can’t get. The idea of a robot proxy isn’t new, but most of the existing models, such as the VGo, aren’t humanoid—they look like segways with a screen. The idea has merit—how many times have you wanted to be in two places at once? How many overseas weddings have you been unable to attend? Have you ever been too sick to see a concert or go to a party? Robotic proxies could provide the next best thing to actual attendance, and according to the project leader, could “help to reduce social isolation and increase civic participation.”
The team will test different remote controlled humanoid robots, such as the Nao. While these are usually used without remote control, for the study a human operator will control the movements and speech. In a later phase of the study, the human role will be phased out and the robots will have more autonomy in their interactions with the humans. Initially, the project will take place at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, but in the later stages that test autonomy, the interactions will take place in public spaces, creating a “living lab” in which to observe human reactions to the robots’ movements, body language, speech, etc.
The study aims to test, among other things, the “uncanny valley” hypothesis—that particularly human-like robots cause revulsion among people. Some of the robots in the project are humanoid, but still easily distinguished from humans by their size, shape, and composition, and the researchers are wondering if these distinctions will help the people in the study avoid that creeped out feeling. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting the heebie jeebies from the Nao, but the Philip K. Dick android? That’s not too tough to imagine, especially since no one’s made a working cylon detector just yet.