Don't Be Scared, It's Only a Robot
Lyons, Dan, Newsweek
Byline: Dan Lyons
Scientists study human-robot interactions to make us more simpatico with our automated friends.
A few months ago, scientists at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, Calif., invited a few ordinary people into their labs and gave them an assignment: they were to teach a robot called PR2 how to map out a room by leading it around and showing it the walls and obstacles. Thing is, the Willow Garage scientists were not studying the robots. They were studying the people. A woman in her 40s walked slowly and gave her robot a thumbs-up sign and said, "Good job!" when it did something correctly. A guy in his 30s started marching because he apparently believed this would make it easier for the robot to perceive his movements. The lesson: "People were forming all kinds of beliefs about what would help the robots do the task, and were quite willing to modify their behaviors to help the robots," says Leila Taka-yama, the scientist who oversees these experiments at Willow Garage.
Takayama is one of about 300 researchers worldwide who make up the tiny but burgeoning field known as human-robot interaction. These folks study the way people respond to robots in various situations, with the hope of making the machines less intimidating. Of course, these days most robots are industrial devices that assemble gadgets. But the age of personal robots is approaching. In a decade or two these mechanical helpers could be doing chores in our homes, but only if people like Takayama can find ways to alleviate our fear of robots, which in decades of sci-fi movies have been depicted more often as foes than as friends. …