So, Where’s My Robot?

Thoughts on Social Machine Learning

Should your robot have a face?

Hyun Lee recently defended her thesis at the MIT Media Lab, exploring the thought provoking topic of “storied objects”. Her work is centered on the design of everyday objects that can record their experience in the world, and summarize that into a story. Her most extensive example is a park bench that records audio and then later can segment and splice together it’s history of interactions into a summary of both the ambient and novel sounds it has heard.

This leads to several design questions about these artifacts. One that is particularly relevant to social robots is whether or not “storied objects” should have a human form and a human story? Or are they new entities altogether with a different perspectives and a different voices? In the park bench example, she explicitly did not want the object to have a human form or a human story, and designed the bench to have a park bench oriented story, put together from the events that happened to the bench.

In the field of social robots there is a lot of question over how human-like the physical form and the behavior of a robot should be. A design perspective highlights the importance of choices of form and how this has to be tightly integrated with function.

Why (or why not) build your robot to be human-like or anthropomorphic?

One practical reason to build a human-like robot is that the artifacts of our world are built for a human form, so for example a robot with human-like hands will be well suited to use everyday tools in the kitchen or on a construction site.

Additionally, the form of the robot communicates the capabilities of the robot to the human partner interacting with it. People have a tendency to anthropomorphize, talking about and treating objects like social actors, even basic computers. If the robot has a face, or eyes, or other human-like features, it will be easy for a human partner to anthropomorphize, allowing it can take advantage of human-like nonverbal communication. But the catch: then you HAVE to implement these skills…e.g., your robot shouldn’t have human-like eyes if it’s not going to use them to communicate in the way that people interacting with it will expect.

In terms of a robot that learns from human partner, the form is one way that the robot designer can communicate to a human teacher what the robot is able to learn, and perhaps more importantly the boundaries of that ability. Importantly, the addition of anthropomorphic features can allow the robot learner to transparently communicate its internal state of the learning process in a social way that a human teacher can intuitively interpret.

An important tenant of design is that form should follow function. Don Norman has three really interesting books about form and function of technology in particular, his most recent one is Emotional Design which has some discussion of social robots and emotions as a transparency device. The main problem that human-looking robots will face for many years to come, is that we are no where close to human-level cognitive abilities or even just manipulation skills. Thus, making a human-looking robot form sets up unreasonable expectations of human-level function, and the human user interacting with such a robot will very quickly be disappointed.

September 15th, 2006 Posted by | HCI | 3 comments