How to Make Robots Less Awkward

Robot Lighting Woman's Cigarette --- Image by ? Blutgruppe/Corbis
Robot Lighting Woman's Cigarette --- Image by © Blutgruppe/Corbis Photo: Blutgruppe/Corbis

Not so long from now, robots are going to be edging their way into everyday life. They already play violin and ask deep, probing questions; in the future, they might guide tours in museums or, like Baymax in Big Hero 6, help take care of us when we're sick. They won't be exactly like computers or people or pets: "Robots are offering a very new kind of relationship," Cynthia Breazeal, one of the pioneers of social robotics, said last week at South by Southwest. But they will keep us company, assist with basic tasks, and teach us new skills — if, that is, we can stand to be around them.

Right now, researchers who specialize in social robotics are determining how to help robots get along with humans — how to help a robot understand "the beliefs, intents, and desires," as Breazeal and colleagues wrote in one paper, of the humans it interacts with. This isn't just for the robots' sake; it's to keep humans sane, too. Right now, robots are often a little bit frustrating to deal with. But if they're going to be spending more time in our homes and workplaces, their creators will need to figure out how to keep robots from being painfully socially awkward.

Breazeal makes the point, in her talk, that humanizing robots doesn't mean making them human. But, if we're going to have to live with them, some social graces might help.

"I think that, personally, robots that adhere to some of our social conventions that we completely take for granted are going to be less annoying to interact with," says Andrea Thomaz, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, who directs the Socially Intelligent Machines lab.

To take a simple example, when will a robot start trying to engage with the world around it? That requires a series of judgements. If the robot detects a movement, first it has to understand what kind of movement it is: A door? A dog? A person? Then, it has to decide what it should do: Make a move? Hang back? And if the robot tries to say hi and a person doesn't respond, that's another decision: Should it keep trying?

"People are so good at understanding when someone is engaged and wanting talk to you," Thomaz says. "It's actually really hard to tell a robot a rule for when to start talking,"

They'll also have to learn how to take turns and how to react warmly or negatively, as appropriate. It is possible, too, for robots to be programmed with something like a personality. In one experiment, Thomaz and her colleague varied how actively the robot tried to interact — whether it pushed itself forward or hung back and let its human partner take a turn. When it was more active, Thomaz says, people who met the robot perceived it as extroverted; when it was passive, they saw it as an introvert.

One goal of this research is to create robots that can learn from people: When a robot arrives at your house, you're going to need to train it in some specifics. Breazeal is working right now on Jibo, which her company bills as the "world's first family robot." And it is appealing — a sort of souped-up, countertop version of Siri that can also take picture and video or be controlled remotely. But, most important, Jibo also seems pleasant to be around. It even knows to make a little joke when tossing out a bad picture:

But even if it's cute at first, after a while, the charm could easily wear off. You have to hope, though, that Jibo has more than one line to use in this situation.