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Friendly Machines

Making human-friendly robots is a pressing challenge and a big opportunity.

As a research scientist I hear this question all the time: when are your robots going to replace me? But that is certainly not my goal.

A more important objective, to my mind, is making robots more human-friendly in their form, behavior, and function. By this I mean that robots should be appealing and approachable. They should behave in ways that are easy for humans to interpret, and they should perform functions that meet human needs. This applies in places like factories where more robots can work effectively alongside people (see “Baxter: The Blue-Collar Robot,”). This is not about making human-like robots. Humanoid robots have a place in entertainment, medical training, and possibly other domains, but human-friendly robots are not necessarily humanoid. In fact, by setting user expectations too high, looking too human could make it more difficult for a robot to interact with people. We are often disappointed and frustrated with the limited capabilities of robots that look as if they should be just as smart as we are.

These robots also do not need to behave just like humans. They might, for example, behave more like service dogs. As long as they are predictable, robots have a hope of making it in the everyday world. Many people know how to communicate with dogs just fine without needing language at all.

Finally, these human-friendly robots must meet real human needs, not only the needs of their inventors. Fetch-a-beer and fold-a-towel demos are nice scientific steps toward building more general robotic capabilities. But what we need now is for human-centered-design researchers and product-minded entrepreneurs to do the dance of the necessary and the possible with the robotics community.

Why does this humanist stuff matter? Because it will help us realize the true potential of the technology. Too many long-term studies of robots in hospitals, offices, and homes have revealed the problem with ignoring the importance of human-to-robot interaction: the robots end up interred in closets, retired to garages, or “mysteriously” disabled and shoved under desks.

Many of my robotics colleagues cringe at the challenges presented by unstructured environments that personal robots need to navigate. But the untrained people around these robots present an entirely different set of equally important challenges. Without serious involvement from the interaction-design, product-design, and entrepreneurial communities, personal robots don’t stand a chance of surviving out in the “real world.”

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