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What Dancing Lizards Can Teach Us About Human-Robot Interaction

What will it take for robots to elicit a strong psychological response from humans?
October 23, 2015

If robotic lizards can goad wild lizards into a territorial dance-off, can robots in scrubs make a human patient feel cared-for? Thanks to a tradition of trickery in animal behavior research and the increasing sophistication of robotics, the question isn’t as absurd as it seems.

Lava lizard

We start with a team of biologists led by David L. Clark of Alma College. They studied lava lizards on the Galapagos Islands. These smallish reptiles defend their territories and advertise themselves to mates by doing a series of head-bobbing push-ups. Several unique species of lava lizard populate the Galapagos, all in the genus Microlophus and all evolutionary offshoots from the mainland Microlophus species.

Clark and his team wanted to test how the lizards responded to their own species versus their taxonomic siblings in Microlophus as a way of probing their evolutionary history. They picked three separate species to focus on: M. grayii, M. indefatigabilis, and the mainland M. occipitalis.

Problem is, following these skittery little guys around and tracking their interactions would be a logistical nightmare using wild lizards—to say nothing of the fact that individuals from each species live miles, apart separated by ocean. If only there was a way to guarantee the sort of cross-species interaction the team was interested in, but in an otherwise wild setting.

So the team built dummy lizards. Using some wooden dowels, a small motor, latex, and a bit of Photoshop wizardry, Clark’s team produced facsimiles of each of the three species they had chosen for study. The model lizards were mounted atop gray plastic bins housing the motor and their electronic guts. The researchers programmed in the bobbing pattern of each species, and could trigger the robots to dance using an iPad. All that was left was to find some wild lizards to subject to the dance stylings of their robots and record the resulting interactions.

You can read more about the evolutionary implications of the study in this blog post by Felicity Muth at Scientific American. What’s of greater interest to us is the successful use of robots to get the lizards riled up.

What other animals could be fooled into treating robots as one of their own? Hunters have long known that a well-carved chunk of wood and a good paint job is all it takes to lure ducks to their doom. A 2012 review in Communicative and Integrative Biology frames the use of robots as a natural extension of a tradition in animal behavior research that began with inert models and simple decoys.

Living systems famously resist control. Models and robots offer scientists a modicum of command over otherwise unwieldy factors, like when and where a lizard chooses to dance. Robots, the authors argue, are particularly useful when it comes to the complicated world of animal social interactions. They offer amphibian examples: several different studies used “faux frogs” to re-create the visual and auditory cues of a frog mating display. (One robo-frog had pneumatic vocal sacs made of condoms.) Having separate control over the two parts of a frog’s display—the inflation and the singing—allowed researchers to ask which was more important to mating success.

This sort of research cannot be written off as only working on “lower” animals either. Famous (or infamous) primatologist Harry Harlow used wire-frame decoys, no robotics necessary, to study the effects of maternal care on rhesus monkeys. Separated from their mothers, baby monkeys raised with harsh wire-frame surrogates were emotionally damaged for life; those raised with wire-frame “mothers” wrapped in soft terry cloth grew up well-adjusted. These inanimate objects, Harlow concluded, were offering a vital psycho-emotional resource.

It’s a short taxonomic hop from monkeys to humans, and Japanese engineers, in particular, are already producing human-like robots that elicit a strong response from us. Thus far that response has typically been an unsettling frisson as our brains seem caught between recognizing a fellow human and something else. But that’s not stopping such efforts. Customer service, treatment of patients with infectious diseases, companionship for the elderly? Robots meant to fill these classically “human” roles are in the pipeline already.

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