Personal robots are closer than you think
12 January 2017
Robotics has always engaged the imagination. Fifty years ago, we could barely envisage the robots we now see working in factories. Today, robots are building our cars and constructing airplanes. However, one problem has plagued the minds of robotics engineers for years. How do we bring robots into human environments?
Personal robots have inspired the writings of great fiction authors and have been notable figures in nearly every sci-fi film to date. As you read this, pioneering thought leaders are programming robots to do amazing, life-changing things. The social impact robots could have is enormous. From tidying up to teaching children and assisting mobility-impaired people in their homes, there are so many ways robots can contribute to our lives.
In her TedxTalk, roboticist Andrea Thomaz explores the changes that need to occur for personal robots to start making a regular appearance in people’s homes, as well as the progress her team has made on designing a robot that’s up to the task.
Design robots for home, work and play
Robots work well in factory environments because their role can be clearly outlined and programmed. They can perform the same manoeuver day in and day out, with minimal obstacles. Life with humans is rarely so organised.
People are dynamic. They change their minds, let the dog run amok in the living room, get in the way of each other and stop what they’re doing half way through a task. At the moment, robots aren’t prepared for the spontaneous, dynamic lives that humans lead. By designing robots to respond and adapt to spontaneity, we’ll be able to work side-by-side with them in the kitchen or the office. With the right programmer, they may even get a grasp of office politics.
Designing robots to respond to our social cues also means that we can use robots in new and developing situations. If a robot is teaching kids in the classroom, it may be able to sense when a fight is breaking out or a child is upset, and respond accordingly.
Program robots to understand our social cues
Robots have to be spontaneous and willing to interrupt their plans. As humans, we don’t wait for silence until we start speaking. Conversations are dynamic, people talk over one another and interrupt each other all the time. A robot has to be able to adapt to the same kind of stop-start interactions.
In response to this reality, roboticists have to program the robot to have that kind of responsiveness and reactiveness. Thomaz’ robot, Curie, has been programmed to stop talking when it hears someone else talk. No matter what it’s saying, it’s always listening for humans who may be speaking to it. When it’s interrupted, it stops talking. So rest assured, your future personal robot will be a good listener.
Build robots with faces and gestures
While robots with faces may seem like an aesthetic decision, it’s crucial if we want to introduce them into our everyday lives. More than simply making us feel comfortable, facial expressions and gestures are the best ways of communicating and anticipating what someone is going to do next.
Thomaz programmed Curie to look at an object before it picks it up. This simple facial gesture lets humans know what the robot is about to do and respond accordingly. Anticipating what a robot is going to do next makes humans more comfortable around the robot, and lets us work with them in synchronicity.
Similarly, gestures convey a lot of information. If a robot can point to an object instead of describing it, as Curie has been programmed to do, we can get information from that robot a lot more quickly.
Want to be a part of the future of robotics?
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