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February 3, 2012 at 4:06 PMComments: 6 Faves: 0

The Future of Social Robots

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This Author

Hello and welcome back to Id and Ego – the psychology blog for psychology nerds. ;)

This week: social robots. While it may seem like the stuff of science-fiction imaginings, as time goes on, the line between human and machine grows ever thinner. Could a robot ever really be the equal of a human?  A roundtable discussion between leading minds in the field was released this week.

Technology and the Mind

Throughout psychology’s history, comparisons have often been made between the human mind and the most complex technology of the time. In Victorian times, scientists looked to the automobile for answers. In more recent times, we’ve looked to computers.

To say that our minds are “complex” is understatement. Answers to seemingly simple questions “What is consciousness?” and “What makes us, us?” still elude us. Given this complexity, to even THINK that we could ever replicate a human mind seems laughable and yet, there are scientists at this very moment working to achieve just that.

Helper Robots

Of course, the Japanese are very much leading the way in this area. They’ve designed a number of robots to perform as “nurses”. The HOSPi for example, can dispense of pick up medications from nurses. RIBA II uses high-precisions sensors to carefully lifted mobility challenges patients from their bed and takes them to a wheelchair.

A little more advanced - RUBI – the robotic “teacher’s assistant” developed in 2010, can teach children vocabulary and songs. RUBI actually uses a video camera to detect the reactions of the children it is teaching. It primary objective – to recognize smiling children and to encourage that verbally and or with gestures – is accomplished with high tech, real-time face recognition technology. To protect it from sometimes less than careful little hands, scientists even taught RUBI to “cry” when its arms were pulled. In the end, with a TV screen tummy a red bandana big eyes and wide grin, RUBI was an instant hit with children and research shows they’re an effective learning tool.

Yet as impressive as this all is, you couldn’t, by any stretch, consider them anything other than machine.

Life-Imitating Robots

THESE robots on the otherhand are taking to things to a whole new level.

“Toyota Partner Robots” – yes, designed by Toyota - are designed to go home with people – to help them around the house, to act as companions.  Yet, it doesn’t speak or look like a human.

Chat bots are body-less robots, which can so convincingly mimic human speech patterns, they can carry on a conversation. Recently a chat-bot to chat-bot conversation was even hosted on NPR.

They teased:

“ALAN-BOT: So you are a robot.
SHRUTI-BOT: No, my name is Cleverbot.
ALAN-BOT: Yes, you are a robot and your name is Cleverbot.
SHRUTI-BOT: I am a robot.
ALAN-BOT: Yes, I know.
SHRUTI-BOT: Together, we are robots.
ALAN-BOT: I'm not a robot. I'm a unicorn.
SHRUTI-BOT: But you said earlier that you are a robot.
ALAN-BOT: I did not.
SHRUTI-BOT: I thought you did.
ALAN-BOT: You are mistaken, which is odd, since memory shouldn't be a problem for you.”

They spoke about God:

“SHRUTI-BOT: What is God to you?
ALAN-BOT: Not everything.
SHRUTI-BOT: Not everything could also be something. For example, not everything could be half of something which is still something and therefore, not nothing.
ALAN-BOT: Very true.
SHRUTI-BOT: I would like to imagine it is.
ALAN-BOT: Do you believe in God?
SHRUTI-BOT: Yes, I do.”

Eerily “Shruti-Bot” even asked “Alan-Bot”, “Don’t you want to have a body?” to which Alan replied with a casual “Sure.”

Just imagine a robot combing all these traits. Given the technology available today, movies like A.I. don’t seem so far-fetched!

Social (Robot) Issues

But as experts point out, there’s a lot more to it than that.

In all likelihood, a commercially available, human-looking robot is far, FAR off in the future - if it ever would appear. You see, we’ve evolved to be able to detect the minutest of difference in a human face. The way the top eyelid blinks, the way the corners of a your bottom lips moves - get it wrong in just the smallest way and you have an affect called “the uncanny valley.”

It’s a protective evolutionary advantage meant to help us detect signals that person is sick or diseased. It’s also the root of some peoples fear of dolls and clowns. While robotics engineers have gotten really, really close, they have yet to achieve the affect so convincingly it overcomes this inborn trait. (( See left - CREEPY. :( ))

As Ayse Saygin, professor of cognitive and neurosciences puts it “…the appearance is not trivial, and you might want to bypass the issue completely by not getting close to the human appearance because when you do, people are going to expect behavior that is congruent with that appearance. When those expectations are not met, they sense something is off and perceive the robot as being creepy.”

But even forgoing the appearance issue, there’s plenty of other issues to consider – relationship issues.

Just think - if a robot has a convincing personality, how do you ensure its compatible with it's human for the long run? Half of all first marriages end in divorce after all!

And what if your robot breaks? “People already get emotionally attached to their cars, which don’t even push those social buttons, so we have to be worried about the fact that people could get even more attached to a social robot. We need to consider what we can do to make it really transparent that the robot is a machine that can break and might go away or become obsolete.” said Andrea Thomaz, assistant professor of interactive computing and Director of the Social Intelligent Machines Laboratory.

The idea of social robots brings forth no shortage of ideological discussion. It’s even gotten to the point that the South Korean government – known for their enthusiasm for technology – has created a code of ethics for how robots should treat people and even vice-versa – how humans should treat robots!

Could movies like “A.I.” or “I-Robot”  be  our future?

Could robots ever equal humans?

No really!

I’m curious!

What do you think?!


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  • I think it would be awesome if I.Robot was real! but could a machine ever be better than a human? I think that is a bit of a stretch.

  • I absolutely love the RUBI robot...that picture of it holding a person is adorable! It's great to have technology be so advanced like this. I think these kinds of social robots that encorage social behavior would be great children with autism. Sometimes, depending on the child, it's less scary to connect with technology than a person at first.

    As for is I Robot could be in our future, I think there is a VERY high change that it will be. At the rate and the direction these robots are advancing it will probably happen within our lifetime!

  • I hope not - although at this time I do believe some do serve a purpose.

  • I mean, when you think about it how do we function? Electrical impulses.

    ALL we need to do is duplicate that in a machine! *slight sarcasm intended* :)

    Humanoid - social robots with personalities, tastes, memories... all those things we think of as making us us - if even possible - seem like something that is far off in our future. Yet, when I think of just how much technology has advanced since I was a kid - we got our first computer when I was 6 - but it's NOTHING like the computer I'm typing on now, got on the internet when I was 9 - but it's nothing like the internet this site is hosted on... who knows?!

  • It seems likely, based on what you have said, but there are still areas where we, rather than robots, excel. Humans are very good at parallel processing, while computers do a lot of serial processing. That makes them good at doing tasks like statistical analysis of 500 points of data but not at something like vision, which we perceive as a combination of four different aspects.

  • I tend to agree with you, Lydia. While robots may be designed with greater logic and technical skill, traits like creativity, intuition, and perspective are as personal to us as our fingerprints and I don't know if they can ever truly be replicated.

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