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Hungry, Thirsty, Scared? Call Your Robot

March 26, 2010


In 1974, author John le Carré wrote a novel he entitled Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He was writing about humans; but today he could have be writing about robots. At the recent RSA Conference held in San Francisco, CA, “Dr Peter Warren Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told delegates … that humanity is poised to enter a golden age of robotics. The robotics industry is at a stage comparable to the car industry in 1909, he said, and humans will increasingly use robots on a day-to-day basis” [“RSA 2010: Humanity entering golden era of robotics,” by Iain Thomson, V3.com.uk, 5 March 2010]. Sounding much like Sarah Connor of the Terminator movie, “Dr Singer warned that this raises ethical questions that could have a dramatic impact on society. … The first moves in this robotic revolution will be in the military sphere, according to Dr Singer. The US Air Force is already recruiting more pilots to fly drones than manned aircraft, and the US Army is planning to have half its squads made up of robot troops by 2015. This is not without its problems, however. Dr Singer cited a case in 2008 when a South African computer-controlled anti-aircraft gun suffered a software glitch and killed nine of its own soldiers before running out of ammunition.” In Israel, an intelligence organization, whose composition is 60% female, is guarding the borders using robots [“Women soldiers guarding border with remote control robots,” by Sivan Peleg, Israel Defense Forces press release, 3 March 2010].


Not all robots being created for the “golden age of robotics” involve the military. In past posts, I’ve noted that robots are being developed to complement aging workforces and to assist the elderly and infirm (see, for example, Demographics and Robots and Robots You Can Love). A Georgia firm, GeckoSystems, advertises itself as providing “Mobile Robot Solutions for Safety, Security and Service™.” The company is in talks with companies from robot-loving Japan to supply them with CareBots™ — mobile service robots that can help with healthcare [“GeckoSystems To Discuss Expansion Capabilities of CareBots™ at “Mobile Robots in Motion” Conference,” GeckoSystems press release, 21 January 2010]. GeckoSystems may enjoy an early-to-market advantage, but it won’t remain alone in the marketplace. A team from a Japanese university is continuing research on its own caregiver robot [“Twendy-One ready to lend a robotic helping hand to the elderly,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 11 March 2010]. Quick reports:

“Twendy-One is the latest robotic helper to join the fray designed to support aging people in their daily activities. Described as a ‘human symbiotic robot’ Twendy-One is designed to co-exist with humans and assist with nursing care and housekeeping. To this end its developers focused on safety, dependability and dexterity in constructing their robot. For collision safety the robot’s outer shell is overlaid with soft silicone skins and force sensors that detect physical contact with a person on any part of its body. This is a key component of a ‘passive impedance mechanism’ that enables the robot to adapt to unexpected external forces on the fly. … Twendy-One is the result of 10 years of research by a team of researchers at Japan’s Waseda University led by Professor Shigeki Sugano along with the cooperation of more than 20 private companies. Although the robot was first unveiled in November, 2007, its developers intend to continue developing its capabilities so that a practical model is ready for release by 2015 – two years before the goal for such a robot set by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and just in time to take care of me in my decrepitude. Upon release the finalized robot is expected to cost between 10,000,000 and 20,000,000 yen (approx. US$110,350 to US$220,700).”

Although GeckoSystems robots don’t look human and the Twendy-One robot isn’t cuddly, patients who use the robots as caregivers could become quite attached to them. At least that is the conclusion of a couple of interesting studies on the subject [“Are you emotionally attached to your robot?The Independent (UK), 4 March 2010]. The article reports:

“Two independent studies from Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC) in Paris and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in the United States researched the human connection to ‘non-humanoid’ robots and found the brain processed emotional responses to robots irrespective of their shape. On March 1, the team at UPMC published their findings in Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, an Oxford University Journal, confirming that, ‘at the behavioral level, emotion shortened reaction times similarly for robotic and human stimuli’ and concluded, ‘results suggest that the early brain processing of emotional expressions is not bounded to human-like arrangements embodying emotion.’ Beki Grinter, an associate professor at Georgia Tech, found humans attached to their robots are ‘… more willing to work with a robot that does have issues because they really, really like it. It sort of begins to address more concerns: If we can design things that are somewhat emotionally engaging, it doesn’t have to be as reliable.’ Grinter commented, ‘this sort of notion that someone would dress a vacuum cleaner seemed strange. A lot more was going on,’ and Ja Young Sung, PhD, another Georgia Tech researcher of ’emotional design’ found people who loved their Roomba, the iRobot vacuum, named and engendered their inanimate friends. Neither study looked at the healthiness of the relationship between human and robot. John O’Neill, director of addictions services for the Menninger Clinic in Houston, told LiveScience, a science news site, ‘I believe that technology has benefited us greatly, but my concern is that many of us have taken it too far, and it’s become a substitute for those necessary face to face conversations.'”

Whether an emotional attachment to a robot is healthy or unhealthy depends on the circumstances. In the post mentioned above (Robots You Can Love), I discussed robots that were intentionally built as companions and that are intended to invoke a positive emotional response. The robots are being promoted as companions for people who aren’t capable of taking care of real pets. Getting emotionally attached to an animated stuff animal is one thing — getting emotionally attached to your vacuum cleaner is quite another. However, emotional responses in both cases could be anchored in a common human emotion: loneliness. The article continues:

“On February 1, Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the US-based Association for Psychological Science (APS) published a study from Harvard University looking at the psychology of anthropomorphism and attributed it to loneliness and a coping mechanism for unpredictability. On March 3, Adam Waytz, PhD and the Harvard study’s lead researcher, told LiveScience, ‘we have this need to belong and to affiliate,’ and ‘when people are deprived of connections with other humans, they’ll form connections with non-humans through anthropomorphism.’ Waytz continued, ‘there may be nothing like the real thing, but that’s a question that we want to test in the future.'”

It is understandable how people could become emotionally attached to robots that perform personal activities normally completed by humans — like bringing you food. For example, a robot called Snackbot is specifically being developed as a research platform for the study of long-term Human-Robot Interaction [“Snackbot serves up some human-robot interaction… and snacks,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 25 February 2010]. Who wouldn’t love a robot that brings you an afternoon candy bar? Quick reports:

“If you’re a student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who is left gasping for breath when forced to drag yourself away from your studies to get a snack, rejoice! A CMU team has created a robot that is designed to deliver snacks to you. But the appropriately named Snackbot is far more than a vending machine on wheels. It is designed to serve as a research platform for the study of long-term Human-Robot Interaction and packs a healthy helping of technological goodies, including a laser navigation system, sonar sensors and a stereo vision camera for eyes. Snackbot is the culmination of two years of work by an interdisciplinary team including faculty members, undergraduates and doctoral students in the university’s Human Robot Interaction Group. About the size of a small person, Snackbot rolls around on wheelsSnackbot and is intended for both fully- and semi-autonomous operation. … Snackbot’s head features a Bumblebee 2 stereo vision camera acting for eyes and a 3 x 12 LED display for the mouth that is programmed with a series of animations that show verbal and emotional feedback in the form of lip shapes, colors and movement. Although the robot doesn’t have functional ears, the team added ears to the head design to let customers know that Snackbot could hear them. … The research includes enabling the robot to navigate through congested areas in a socially acceptable fashion, detect individual people, recognize when someone it knows approaches and autonomously learn to recognize new objects. It will also support behavioral science research on such topics as personalization and people’s relationships with interactive objects. … A paper detailing the design process undertaken by the CMU team in developing Snackbot can be found on Snackbot’s.”

Other robots under development don’t just serve up snacks they cook up meals [“Just Like Mombot Used to Make,” by Ian Daly, New York Times, 24 February 2010]. Daly’s article begins with a discussion of the Snackbot, then continues:

“In 2006, after four years of research and more than a quarter-million-dollar investment, Fanxing Science and Technology, a company in Shenzhen, China, unveiled what was called the ‘world’s first cooking robot’ — AIC-AI Cooking Robot — able, at the touch of a button, to fry, bake, boil and steam its way through thousands of Chinese delicacies from at least three culinary regions. AIC-AI needs a special stove for cooking, but many of the mechanized culinary wizards developed since then can work on almost any kind of stove, as long as the robot is either shown ahead of time how a particular stove works or the stove’s characteristics are programmed into the robot’s software. In 2008, scientists at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland, came out with one such teachable chef, the Chief Cook Robot, which can make omelets (ham and Gruyère were in its first) and bears a resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy. That same year, at the Osaka Museum of Creative Industries in Japan, a programmable robot began preparing takoyaki (octopus balls) from scratch, a chef’s bandana wrapped jauntily around its upper module. Last June, at the International Food Machinery and Technology Expo in Tokyo, a broad-shouldered Motoman SDA-10 robot with spatulas for arms made okonomiyaki (savory panckes) for attendees; another robot grabbed sushi with an eerily realistic hand; and still another, the Dynamizer, sliced cucumbers at inhumanly fast speeds and occasionally complained about being tired and wanting to go home. Then, a month later in Nagoya, Japan, the Famen restaurant opened, with two giant yellow robot arms preparing up to 800 bowls of ramen a day. When it’s slow, the robots act out a scripted comedy routine and spar with knives.”

Daly reports that these cooking robots aren’t likely to put many short order cooks or awarding-winning chefs out of a job because they come with a hefty price tag. Robots, of course, have assumed many routinized tasks in industrial settings. Under those circumstances, their hefty price tags become palatable. Daly explains that the restaurant that does employ robots is owned by Kenji Nagaya, who is the president of a robotics company. Daly continues:

“They may be worth the cost at Mr. Nagaya’s other workplace, the robotics company Aisei in Nagoya, where he is the president. ‘I have made and programmed industrial robots at our company so long, and I was thinking to set up a place to promote our business,’ he said. ‘I love ramen a lot, and ramen restaurants are always featured in magazines and on television in Japan, so I thought opening a ramen shop with robots would have a huge impact on promoting our business.’ … While cooking is certainly a more universal way to showcase a robot’s abilities than, say, laser-welding, it is also unique in its ability to tackle something deeper: namely, the public’s collective ‘Terminator’-fueled angst over a future populated by vengeful hominoid machines. Dr. Heather Knight, a roboticist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that the industry is trying to change ‘the perception of robots.’ … ‘So how do you change this perception that robots are going to be way too intelligent and destroy us? One of the fastest ways to people’s hearts is food, right? Any girlfriend or wife would say that.’ In fact, Dr. Aude Billard, whose team designed the egg-handling Chief Cook Robot, said that she decided on omelets because ‘it was the first dish my partner cooked for me.’ The omelet making was meant to show how a robot could be ‘taught’ to accomplish complex tasks. It was also ‘something that all the guys in the lab knew sufficiently well to be able to train the robot,’ she said. But perhaps the biggest accomplishment of this new wave of sustenance-bearing machines is their departure from what defined their predecessors. The Fritz Lang level of efficiency normally associated with robots is notably absent — and that’s no accident.”

The “Fritz Lang” to whom Daly refers is Friedrich “Fritz” Christian Anton Lang, a groundbreaking director in the silent film era. He was dubbed the “Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute for directing films like Metropolis (the Avatar of its age and the world’s most expensive silent film at the time of its release). By giving robots a bit of personality, creators hope to deflect potential negative perceptions of a rising machine population destined to take over the world. Daly continues:

“‘A simple rule of robotic personality seems to be: don’t make things the most efficient way,’ said Magnus Wurzer, who has been running the Vienna-based Roboexotica, a festival where scientists have gone to build, showcase and discuss ‘cocktail robots’ since 1999. One entry, Beerbot, detects approaching people and asks for beer money. When it acquires enough, it ‘buys’ itself a beer. Bystanders can watch it flow into a transparent bladder. … In at least one case in Europe, a robot actually got behind a bar. From 1999 to 2002, a scarlet-eyed metal robot named Cynthia poured drinks at Cynthia’s Bridge Bar and Lounge in London. But according to Mr. Wurzer, ‘she was too costly to maintain once the bar was sold by the robot’s maker.’ One reviewer at virtual-london.com, a travel-information Web site, said that Cynthia’s problems went deeper: ‘She whirls into action, pouring drinks to perfection, mixing them, recounting awful jokes and chuckling to herself while frightened customers feel grateful she’s not allowed out from behind the bar.’ Aside from the obvious challenges of instilling a machine with personality is the other, long-held axiom in the world of robotics: what might seem second-nature to humans can be all but impossible to teach a machine. Mr. Wurzer said that one scientist at Roboexotica built a robot solely dedicated to the preparation of mojitos — ‘with the grinding and stomping and all.’ And yet the most challenging task for all the robots, he said, was probably the one thing that no human bartender ever botches: handling the ice. The Chief Cook Robot still relies on human beings to crack the eggs — the shells are far too delicate for its metal hands. The okonomiyaki-making robot still needs the vegetables prepped, a task arguably better suited to a robot. And while robots could certainly be developed and trained for these tasks, some culinary arts are so delicate and ancient — so venerated and sanctified — that even these machines’ creators wouldn’t trust them to inhuman hands. … But the real obstacle to a world full of mechanized sous-chefs and simulated rage-filled robo-Gordon Ramsays may be something much harder to fake: none of these robots can taste.”

It’s good to know that we humans can still do some things better than machines. We may be entering a golden age of robots, but we are going to have to wait a long time before we live in a world like the one enjoyed by the Jetsons. I daresay, however, that we live in a time when tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and spies are all using robots.

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