What makes a robot social?

Social robots are designed to interact and work with people in an interpersonal way, helping to achieve goals and improve the standard of living. Cynthia Breazeal, Director of the MIT-wide Initiative on Responsible AI for Social Empowerment and Education, describes it as “feeling much more like you’re interacting with someone rather than a something.” Social robots go beyond performing a simple task; They require a deep understanding of human intelligence (cognitive, social, physical, etc.).

CULTURAL RESPONSE TO ROBOTS

Cultural response is extremely important when designing robotics, particularly in care providing services. I think back to Group A’s discussion last week. Many of us agreed that AI would improve the flow of a medical office and help prioritize patients, but we do not want a computer to tell us that we are dying. That level of intimacy is too complex to be programmed. Heck, most of us would not know how to tell someone that news.

The difference in preferences among western and eastern cultures will affect the acceptance and design choices of social robots. Robots are designed to be cute and cuddly, almost pet like in Japan. In the US, robots are often seen as either rigid and threatening or useful, good guys. Why the difference? Some blame Hollywood movies and science fiction. Movies like Westworld, Stepford Wives, and I, Robot are all rattled with ideas of enslaving the human race, but no one would question R2D2’s good nature.

Although there are those that will always be opposed to social robots,  I believe the representation of robots in the US today is mostly positive. For example, Baymax from Big Hero 6 is a simple, inflatable robot built by Tadashi to be his medical assistant. Baymax doesn’t say much, but that doesn’t stop you from falling in love with his goofy, curious self. Baymax is known for being calm, even in dangerous situations, and is easily distracted. He seems naïve to us in an endearing kind of way, but in reality, he is simply a robot processing data to make information. You would not want Baymax to review your test results with you, but you have to admit he would be a very pleasant companion in the waiting room.

Baymax Pets a Hairy Baby Cat In Disney's Big Hero 6

Even President Obama cannot help but smile when playing soccer with childlike ASIMO, a robot at Japan’s Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

ROBOT DESIGN

Social robots are more than scientific design; it involves aesthetic choices and personality traits. Engineers are challenged to create robots that we want to live with. Steve Jobs said it best:

“Technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing”

Engineers pull from robotics, artificial intelligence, psychology, neuroscience, human factors, anthropology, and the natural world when designing robots. Per Heather Knight, humans do not respond well to humanlike designs because they are not yet fully humanlike. Humans, being human, are extremely familiar with what it takes to..well..be a human! As a result, robots are designed to be slightly unfamiliar to us.

Poo-Chi The Robot Dog.: nostalgia

Does anyone remember Poo-Chi from the early 2000s? Poo-Chi was one of the first robopets to hit the market. It played music, danced, barked, and would get happier as you played with it. Poo-Chi’s behavior was familiar enough to us to mimic a dog’s demeanor, but not so familiar because we are not canines.

The easiest solution to robot design is to create a cartooned or non-anthropomorphic design that humans have nothing to compare to. Leka is a good example. Leka is a multi-sensory toy designed for disabled children. Aesthetically, Leka’s design is extremely simple and cartoon-like. Leka lights up with colorful LEDs, plays music and chirps in anthropomorphic fashion, and emits subtle vibrations. Its eyes are kind, cheerful, and welcoming, making you feel understood. All of these characteristics were carefully designed to attract child engagement. Leka breaks down complex goals into manageable steps, encouraging social interaction that disabled children often find difficult.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Robots used to be on my “scary” list, but now I can’t help but have a soft spot for them. The really scary thing about tomorrow’s robots is you probably won’t even know they’re there! Engineers face a very interesting challenge in the way they choose to code human cognition and behavior into a machine. To my surprise, I did not find much research regarding diversity considerations. It was disappointing considering the amount of thought process that goes into the methodology of designing a social, empathetic machine. So, I would like my classmates to help with the following questions:

  1. Do robots today encourage gender bias? I can’t think of a single male robot outside of movie characters. Many argue that female voices are more tender than male.
  2. Additionally, do you believe there is a racial bias concern in robot design? A New Zealand study in 2019 argued that robots currently being sold or developed are either stylized with white material or have a metallic appearance. Ex. Baymax, R2D2, and I, Robot

Sources

Leka

The designers helping us embrace robots

Amazon’s Astro robot is stupid. You’ll still fall in love with it.

How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy through Good Design

Why Do Robots Look Like Animals and Humans?

Robot racism? Yes, says a study showing humans’ biases extend to robots

How AI bots and voice assistants reinforce gender bias

Why Are So Many Robots White? Study Shows There’s a Racial Bias

THE RISE OF SOCIAL ROBOTS: HOW AI CAN HELP US FLOURISH

22 comments

  1. Really cool post, and yes those Poo-Chi robots brought back instant memories. I can’t remember the exact brand my brother and I had, but the dog was pretty much a part of my family (even though we had 2 real dogs at the same time lol). I think utilizing the technology for breakthroughs like Leka where robots are used for social enhancement tools for disabled children are valuable breakthroughs that will set the foundation for further similar discoveries.

    To answer your questions:

    1. I believe so, yes, and I think you hit the nail on the head with the tender voice reasoning. While I don’t think it’s impossible for a male voiced robot to be just as charming and accessible to the public, a charming female voice is just the more widely accepted choice. We need more Baymax in real-life!

    2. I don’t feel knowledgeable enough on the matter to call it a concern, but I do believe that the coloring and presentation of social robots need to be very meticulously vetted before going out to major markets. These are biases that can have major implications if not considered prior to going public, so I think a company should deeply consider whether or not their product has been affected by a racial bias before hitting the shelves.

    1. Thanks, Bryan! I had the pink Poo-Chi and it was basically part of the family as well. :) Thanks for the feedback! I was curious to see what people thought specifically about the racial issue because I had never thought of it. You bring up a good point; Companies should think deeply about the implications of their color choices and aesthetic features.

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog post from beginning to end. The overall narrative of robots has shifted as we have grown to use and accept technology over the years. If people are okay using social media and having their data distributed basically globally, I think they’re okay with robots occupying some of our sidewalks. The next change will be when robots begin replacing humans, and I mean physical robots like those from Boston Dynamics. For the questions, female voices just tend to be more relaxing, despite sounding robotic. (cough, cough…Siri) I think it’s ridiculous that the color and design of a robot matters right now. That’s as far as I’ll go with that answer. Excellent post!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad it was as fun to read as it was write. Lol. I appreciate the honest feedback! As mentioned in the comments before, I hadn’t thought of the implications before researching the topic. I wanted debate for both sides to reach my own opinion. Thanks for being the devil’s advocate!

  3. Cool blog, you did some awesome research here. Lexa in particular was a fastinating concept to me – the idea of staying away from trying to completely mimic humans to avoid failure and confusion, but taking the importance pieces of human nature like empathy and “kind eyes”….

    In terms of racial bias, I don’t think that is an issue in terms of hardware. The more interesting issue in my opinion would be related to how these robots are trained – on what data, to react to what situations, etc… That is the big whoop in AI design right now, and I think that applies to physical robots in our world as well, because they could run into real-world situations that they’re prepared for or not, based on the conditions under which they were trained.

    1. Thanks! I thought Lexa was very cool too. I haven’t seen/met someone who uses it, but I’m considering getting it as a Christmas gift for my nephew.

      Another devil’s advocate! Awesome! Good point…maybe society should worry less about the color choice and more on the authenticity and diversity of the data.

  4. The voice of a robot or any automated response has a huge impact on the user, so it makes sense that it changes depending on the function. Siri, like mentioned above in the comments, is often commanded to do things, so it makes sense that is it a female-sounding voice. The article below states pretty clearly that generally people expect women to be in administrative roles, performing tasks like the assistants.

    As for the racial bias, I think it is more about function rather than the outer appearance, but it certainly does exist. In current hand drying machines, sensors are more likely to pick up caucasian hands rather than Black or Asian hands. This has to do with who was included in the testing processes and the creation of the materials and overall diversity in STEM. Hopefully one that will become less and less of an issue, but it certainly won’t go away by itself.

    Thanks for bringing these questions up!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/03/why-do-so-many-digital-assistants-have-feminine-names/475884/

    https://gizmodo.com/why-cant-this-soap-dispenser-identify-dark-skin-1797931773

    1. I’ve seen similar research for photo editing sensors that recognize/adjust lighting for caucasian skin considerably better than darker skin. I hadn’t heard of drying machines…interesting! Thank you for adding to the conversation!

  5. As I read your post, I couldn’t help but think about Furbies. I am sure I am not the only person in the class who had a Furby. But if you’re not familiar with them, they’re a hamster/owl-like robot creature. Eventually, my Furby creeped me out, so I shoved it in the way back of my closest. Something that I wasn’t aware of back in the day; was that Furbies spoke “Furbish”, the unique language that all Furbies use, but were programmed to start using English words and phrases in place of Furbish over time. The process was intended to resemble the process of learning English. Looking back this is quite advance for a toy!

    I think when we consider the gender or race of robots we should really being looking at who is creating the robots. I think it is safe to say that males are designing the majority of robots thus they’re likely to project their own thoughts, feelings and opinions into their designs.

    1. I always wanted a Furby!! You hit the nail on the head. I was waiting for someone to ask “who designs the social robot?” That was one of my first thoughts too, but I couldn’t find reliable data to support the hunch so I thought it best not to include it in the blog. Thanks for the input!!

  6. Interesting questions. Might check out the concept of the “uncanny valley” if you’re not familiar with it.

    1. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  7. Very enjoyable post! I liked how you compared the differences between the east and the west in their ideas of how robots should be. Also to answer your question, I’ve heard some male robots that have been given British accents to deliver more of a butler type aesthetic. Other than that it’s mostly women voices as they are typically softer and less threatening than a male’s voice.

    1. Thank you! Lol while I find that hilarious, I’m sure many Brits do not like that stereotype. I wonder if that’s a societal issue they are facing across the sea? Or maybe they have thicker skin than Americans. Interesting, interesting, interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  8. I think the idea of robots as scary or threatening is definitely an older trope, as people growing up in the West in the 2000’s have more or less grown up in tandem with technology. Even animals depend on technology. I have seen a “robot” that senses when a cat lingers around it and can dispense an individual serving of food for animals who have eating control issues. I think the area I definitely want to explore more is the bias of robots. I wonder if it is just a side effect of being programmed by humans who are inherently biased?

    1. Allie brought up the same concern; Perhaps we should look into who designs the robot and why they make those aesthetic decisions. Are they bias, or did they do a poll? Was the pool taken for the poll bias itself? There are many, many questions to explore. Thanks for sharing, Karl!

  9. I agree with your point about creating robots in a cartooned or non-anthropomorphic design (that humans have nothing to compare to). My professor told me of a study once that investigated how humanoid people would allow robots to be, before they started getting creeped out. I’d be interested to learn more about the results of the study, but I would assume people would prefer the reliance on cozy, fuzzy robots – like Bamax – as opposed to a human looking one.

    1. I agree! Something about finding comfort from something different to us is soothing. I’m not sure what the psychology is behind it, but I bet we could all learn from it. Thanks, Shannon!

  10. Really interesting post, I learned a lot of new things while reading it. I wonder at what point will we all have a robot companion sitting by our side wherever we go, and if that eventually turns into an emotional connection. I’m curious to see if there are any companies that are trying to make a push within the US to target millennials or Gen Z with a social robot.

    1. Thanks, Olger!! I wonder too. Shannon (above) brought up an interesting study that was done to see how long people handled/weren’t creeped out by humanoid people. I’m curious to know if there are companies pursuing robot companionship, are the robots fuzzy and cute or anthropomorphized?

  11. Amazing post, I am really into computational cognition and its applications in the World. I learned a lot of interesting things reading your blog.
    I am not scared of the future and I think that it is our decision to understand it and create it.
    Personally, though controversial, I don’t think that robots embrace any kind of gender or racial discrimination. I think that the color of the robot is more related to design and materials and does not really have any kind of bias ( no American will be that white xD )
    My argument is based on the recruitment policy and culture of the major tech companies developing them.
    It is increasingly evident that robots will be part of our lives and we should also consider the effects and impact they will have on humankind. I am optimistic about it but major concerns for me are ethical.

    1. Thanks, Albert! I appreciate the Devil’s advocate position because it’s unclear where to draw the line of metal choice versus ethical selection. A few others have also questioned the diversity of those that design/create the robots is what matters. Thanks for sharing!

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