Despite the sci-fi inspired expectation that we will one day share our homes and workplaces with physical robots, there has been precious little real-life research into human-machine interaction over the long term.
Will our attitudes towards robots over time see them becoming an underclass of subservient slaves (which later revolt) as proposed in I, Robot? Perhaps cohabitation over a long enough period will see humans falling in love with their bots as is the case in Ex Machina?
There have been a small number of studies to date. In one human subjects shared their home with an expressive robotic head – the EMYS (EMotive headY System) – programmed with ‘emotions’ and able to do simple tasks like give weather updates and play music.
Considered a long term study, it lasted only ten days.
In other research participants have interacted with robots over the course of a year or more, but usually during hour long weekly sessions, or have been paired with basic robots like a vacuum cleaning Roomba.
“There are very few social robots that have ever been implemented within a working environment or any environment really so we don’t have long term research data about what happens,” explains Professor Mari Velonaki, director of UNSW’s Creative Robotics Lab.
To find out, Velonaki, her colleagues and researchers from the Fuji Xerox Research Technology Group are busy building a prototype advanced bot for what will be one of the longest studies of day to day human interaction with a social robot.
The UNSW lab is now working on the design and ‘psychological programming’ of the robot, with technical capabilities such as its robo-navigation and artificial intelligence developed by the universities School of Computer Science
The bot – a prototype of which is expected to be ready within a year – will be placed with a group of 15 Fuji Xerox employees at the company’s research and development office in Yokohama, Japan, as part of a three year project.
Will the bot end up a valued member of the team, a tired toy or an annoyance?
“Our main goal is to make a companion for humans… I think one of the differentiators will be understanding the person’s emotional requirements and acting not in a physical way, but in a subtle way that facilitates positive arousal,” says Dr Roshan Thapliya, research senior manager of the Research and Technology Group at Fuji Xerox.
“We want to create a heartful robot.”
When in situ at Yokohama, the robot will play a number of roles, Thapliya says.
“If you look at an average office worker at the moment, almost 70 to 80 per cent of their time they are not doing the work they should be doing. They are looking for documents or for the right person to ask about a particular problem. We would like a special type of robot that would fit right into the workplace so that people will not be disturbed by its presence but at the same time help them with their tasks,” he says.
The bot could act as a ‘creative mediator’ that interrupts at just the right moment and pairs people to collaborate, Velonaki, who has spent close to 20 years designing and building social robots and interactive art, adds.
“It sounds like an oxymoron, a machine to enhance human interaction, but sometimes you need a system that breaks the monotony. Someone else wants to join a circle because it seems collaborative and the robot can facilitate that,” she says.
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