Bonding with Bots


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Morgan.

The sentiment has been expressed time and time again: “Robots are stealing our jobs!” And it’s partly true. There are now robotic bartenders, waiters, comedians, and even pole dancers. However, most of the jobs given to robots are simple, repetitive tasks that are executed on assembly lines alongside humans.

Still, the fear that artificially-intelligent beings will surpass humans is prevalent. But are we putting too much emphasis on the possible negative ramifications of robots becoming a part of our daily lives and not exploring the positive outcomes enough? Could humans learn to overcome this fear and have robot companions?

Some studies seem to indicate that we may not be very far from such friendships existing. In a study conducted by Christoph Bartneck aiming to find out how humans feel toward their robotic counterparts, participants were paired with an expressive robot called “iCat” and the duo was instructed to play a game together.

For half of the participants, the robot was smart, and for the other half it was not.

Researchers also gauged how sociable the robot was and made it so that the iCat was friendlier to some more than others. When participants were told to shut the robot off, the iCat immediately started to beg for its “life,” saying “it can’t be true, switch me off? You’re not going to switch me off are you?”

Despite the guilt trip, all 42 of those in the study decided to go against the robot’s emotional pleas to remain on. Those that had a more intelligent bot however, demonstrated more hesitation when shutting it down. Bartneck believes that as robots become more advanced and human-like, more compassion will be felt toward them.

In another study that demonstrates humans showing empathy toward robots, experimenters showed volunteers two videos. In one a small dinosaur robot is hugged and tickled. In the other the dinosaur is hit or dropped to the ground.

After showing the videos, experimenters recorded people’s skin conductance levels, which increase the more a person sweats. Levels were found to be higher after watching the robot being abused. Volunteers also reported feeling more negative emotions toward the violent video.

Some companies don’t just want people to feel bad for robots though, they want to see humans and robots become friends.

One of the advocate companies for personal robots is SoftBank Mobile Group, Japan’s leading mobile operator. In May 2014, with the help of Aldebaran Robotics, SoftBank unveiled “Pepper” a robot that can “hang out, make jokes, talk, and dance.”

According to SoftBank’s press release, Pepper can understand emotions based on human’s facial expressions, body language, and diction. Although Pepper doesn’t clean your house, or perform chores, it offers a social companionship that could possibly be beneficial for lonely, elderly people who live on their own, as well as children with autism.

More human-like androids have gotten mixed reactions from consumers.

For example, Geminoid-F, developed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, is a female android that looks almost identical to the woman she is set to resemble, and is able to mimic human facial expressions almost perfectly.

The keyword here though is “almost.” Although Geminoid-F could arguably be mistaken for a human in a crowd, those that see her move can tell that she is not exactly human.

Because of this, Ishiguro’s creation has surely caused some people to experience the phenomenon called “uncanny valley.” Uncanny valley is the repulsion felt by humans who interact with humanoid robots and are essentially “creeped out” by the robot’s “close but not close enough” resemblance to humans.

As reported by Popular Science, Ishiguro hopes to one day smoothly replicate human movement “resolving that discrepancy and eliminating uncanny valley altogether.”

Pepper, despite being able to also express emotion using funny gestures and voice tones, is never mistaken for a human. Its playful expression and clearly robotic body isn’t remotely threatening to consumers, who have reacted well to its presence in SoftBank Mobile stores.

From a technological standpoint, the best feature about Pepper is that it can evolve. Developers and apps can build upon the software with which the humanoid robot is built. Pepper can also learn through its daily interactions.

Pieter Abbeel, Associator Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley, tells BTR that the ability for robots to pick up skills on their own is instrumental to the future of robotics.

“The way we are going about [having robots evolve] is rather than equipping robots directly with every skill we want them to have (which would be impractically time-consuming), [we are] equipping robots with the ability to learn,” says Abbeel. In addition to updating the robot’s software, such learning can be done by the robot watching people (or videos of people) doing things, or through its own trial and error.

His team at Berkeley is currently trying to teach robots how to react to unstructured environments, and be able to succeed in doing tasks in an environment it has never encountered before.

Robotbase, a New York-based startup, has the same goal, and seems to be very close to reaching it.

Robotbase’s new robot is more of a personal assistant than a maid. It connects to consumers’ devices and keeps their homes secured and at the perfect temperature. It can also play music, order food, make video calls, and take pictures.

The robot also learns the floor plan of buyers’ homes to act as a security guard when they’re away. Abbeel and his team are working on the technology that may enable Robotbase’s product to be able to act as security guard without first having to spend time learning the floor plan.

While it still has that human element because of the avatar present on its screen, and the friendly voice that emits from the bot, the personal robot clearly is not trying to trick anyone into thinking it’s a human.

At this point, Robotbase’s new product could be the closest human and bots get to living harmoniously in the foreseeable future. However, with the continued advancement of other technologies like Pepper and the Geminoid-F, it’s clear that humans will continue to develop robots with which they can socialize.