Who needs friends when robots are this sociable?

Who needs friends when robots are this sociable?
From Engadget - July 29, 2017

But how can this be? This was a machine, a mechanical device explicitly built to be blown up in a human's stead. We do not mourn the loss of toasters or coffeemakers beyond the inconvenience of their absence, so why should a gangly robotic hexapod generate any more consternation than a freshly squashed bug? It comes down, in part, to the mind's habit of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. And it's this mental quirk that could be exactly what humanity needs to climb out of the uncanny valley and begin making emotional connections with the robots around us.

These sorts of emotional connections come more easily in military applications, where soldiers' lives depend on these devices working as they should. "They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add 'poor little guy,' or they'd say they had a funeral for it," Dr. Julie Carpenter of the University of Washington wrote in 2013. "These robots are critical tools they maintain, rely on, and use daily. They are also tools that happen to move around and act as a stand-in for a team member, keeping Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel at a safer distance from harm."

"They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet," Carpenter continues. These behaviors included naming the robots. And while the 22 soldiers that Carpenter interviewed for her study asserted that the destruction of these machines did not influence their decision-making, they did reportedly experience a range of emotion from anger and frustration to outright sadness. These military machines have very real value as their continued operation saves lives. But what about robots like the Anki Cozmo or the Sony AIBO, gadgets that serve the sole purpose of being sociable?

Dr. Kate Darling, a research specialist at the MIT Media Lab, defined a social robot as a "physically embodied, autonomous agent that communicates and interacts with humans on a social level." These robots "communicate through social cues, display adaptive learning behavior, and mimic various emotional states," which help them instigate far stronger emotional bonds from their users than non-social devices.

The reason behind this, Darling argued, is due to three factors: physicality, perceived autonomous movement and social behavior. Humans tend to gravitate toward physical objects versus visual representations like drawings or digital renderings. If that physical object is capable of moving on its own in a way that humans ca not fully anticipate, we are more likely to interpret those motions as "intent" -- even if it's just your Roomba banging against walls or getting stuck under the couch again. However if the physical, self-propelled device is designed to trigger specific social cues, such as Buddy's large and expressive eyes, the effect on the user is even stronger because it mimics "cues that we automatically, even subconsciously associate with certain states of mind or feelings," Darling wrote.

"[What] we are seeing is that people treat Cozmo more like a pet, not in all aspects yet but in some very fundamental ways," explained Hanns Tappeiner, president and co-founder of Anki. "We definitely knew people were playing with Cozmo one-on-one but what we learned [since the robot's launch last October] is they also actually play with it around the dinner table almost like what you would do with a puppy."

These anthropomorphic tendencies enable social robots to manipulate their users to a certain degree. But rather than demand to be "fed" and "played with" like Tamagotchi, the '90's popular digital pets, used to, social robots today are proving to be effective surrogates in both education and health care. Zorabots, which is based on the NAO robotic platform from Softbank, help motivate senior citizens to complete their therapeutic exercises while the seal-shaped Paro robot serves as a stand-in for living pets for dementia patients.

"Some people are nervous about the fact that we are giving robots to old people because they think that we are replacing human care with technology." Darling told Engadget. "I am not concerned in this case because I think that here, clearly, the robot is an animal therapy replacement and it works really, really well. It gives people that sense of nurturing something that they do not normally get to have because their life has been reduced to being cared for by others."

But do not expect robotics manufacturers to build human stand-ins any time soon. "It's too difficult to create a perfect human replica that behaves enough like a human that it does not disappoint your expectations when you interact with it," Darling argued. Instead, "we are going to see a lot of robots that draw more on animation techniques to mimic characters that we see as lifelike but that are not trying to imitate something intimately familiar."


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