People get attached to their Roombas.
They name their machines. They worry that repairs might change their Roomba’s personality. They paint them, dress them in costumes, even post videos of their Roomba in action.
Roboticists see opportunity in this behavior. If humans develop strong feelings about mindless floor cleaners, imagine how they might respond to “socially assistive” machines designed specifically to provide companionship and assistance to people; those with disabilities, for example.
Socially assistive robots, scientists hope, will one day assist stroke patients with rehab, stroll alongside dementia patients-perhaps helping them navigate hallways along the way, and help autistic kids improve interpersonal skills.
But they’ll reach their potential only if they can discern human emotion and intent, express something akin to feelings in response, and follow social conventions, according to Kerstin Dautenhahn, a professor at the School of Computer Science at the UK’s University of Hertfordshire.
“A socially ignorant robot always takes a direct path and interrupts at any point to do its task,” she explained to the Washington Post.
“But a socially (assistive) robot modifies its path to avoid getting too close to a human, waits until the right time to talk and fetches items without being asked.”
To accomplish this, new robots will use information obtained from sensors.
For example, motion detectors attached to the wrist allow robots to assess a human’s speed and direction. Heat sensors permit the robot to move toward or away from a warm body.
“People may be open to direct encouragement when they’re fresh and require more empathy when they’re tired,” notes Reid Simmons, a professor at Carnegie Mellon.
“So the robot may need to change its speech and expression, just as a therapist would.”