Cute Robots

Robots are going to get cuter. It’s a natural defense strategy when dealing with the public. As I discussed in my article on robots being bullied, there are going to be a lot of people who will see robots out in the street and be impolite or hostile towards them. Have a quick look at this delivery robot from Starship (best part is at 1:40 if it doesn’t start there for you).

The robot moves in a straight line, asks politely for people to get out of the way if they block it, and an alarm goes off if it’s interfered with. Starship says they’ve had good results from people on the street helping the robot if it gets into trouble. It may be a lasting effect, or novelty factor. The thing is that there’s work being done to help people live with their robots. This clip from Star Wars shows us a (remote controlled) small wheeled robot that’s a little more lively than the Starship delivery crawler.

It’s cute. Not just because it’s small, but because it squeaks and blats in a way that tells you what it’s thinking. It’s trundling along making a happy noise, and then encounters an angry Wookie, at which point it squeals and runs away. That behavior is more effective – in my opinion – than a polite ‘please move’ or an alarm.

The Starship robot is trying to act like a peer, and is relying on etiquette and politeness, which only works if the robot can enforce its existence as a social equal of the person it’s asking to move. Since AI is nowhere near sentience, and most people know that a pizza delivery droid isn’t going to be the first robot to get a genuine person brain, there are going to be humans who take this as a challenge to their own personhood*. What I believe is more effective is the robot acting like a trained animal or a pet. Not using words, but instead physical motion and expressive noises to make itself seem less intimidating and less like it’s trying to take a social position that may cause aggressive responses. It not only disarms it to people who are predisposed to be hostile, but also engages bystanders in feeling sorry for it when mistreated.

Speaking of motion, there’s something else at work in that mouse droid’s actions. It’s weaving around and making turns in a fluid, organic manner that helps show what it’s thinking and where it’s going. In robotics, this is called legibility and predictability. I’ll borrow one of their graphics to explain (there are better ones in the paper, but this one is compact):

The gray line is predictable. If you know the robot wants the right-hand bottle, it’s the path you expect it to take. Direct, and goal-oriented. The orange line is legible. If you don’t know what bottle the robot wants, it tells you what bottle it will take. Indirect, but communicates more information. Like the mouse droid above, it tells you what it’s doing as part of the motion. The droid probably could have spun its wheels in the opposite direction and been gone without turning around, but by doing that little turn, it tells us that it will be going away now and communicates its distress in the little tremble of its turn. The weaving as it approaches our heroes also seems to be telling them that it wants their attention. It’s deliberately curving around to get in front of them, rather than taking a straight-line path near the wall or across the floor.

Land Rover is taking an interesting tact on these kinds of nonverbal cues:

One of the big issues with a driverless car (or any robot with perception) is the lack of a human giving human body cues. A driverless car probably sees you, but there’s no indication. This car not only has the lights telling people whether it’s planning on stopping or continuing, but also the eyes like a human driver aimed at a pedestrian to tell them it’s aware of their presence. The eyes serve a secondary function in sweeping back and forth to help people think of the cars as watching the road. The car communicates both awareness in general and awareness of specific things in a way that humans around it can quickly and easily understand.

There’s also a real ‘Brave Little Toaster’ vibe happening here.

“I’m just a car/vacuum cleaner, doing my job. Just another day in the office/meadow…” The car says with its eyes and the straight line below that looks like a mouth. The impression of boredom makes the car seem commonplace and workaday. “Nothing novel about me,” the car says “there’s a million of us all doing our jobs every day everywhere.”

With robots, like with humans, the way the message is sent is as important as what the message contains. Words are one of many channels in human communication, and often considered to convey less meaning than some of the others. When robots are sending impressions with a glance, a twitch of the servo, and the way they move their joints, we’ll be much closer to having them as much a part of our daily lives as service animals and strangers on the street.

* Parallels in human history and interaction occur, but perhaps are best left to the more tactful scholars of such sensitive issues.

One thought on “Cute Robots

  1. A fascinating article. I found the Land Rover approach particularly interesting. Perhaps a bit too cute but the “eyes” as indicators of awareness and the lights as indicators of intent would, I think, make people much more comfortable with driverless cars. This approach might be the best way to go for the ones designed as taxis.


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