Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Three Reasons for Social Robots: Mobility, Humanity’s construct and Anthropomorphism

I am constantly asked why does anyone need a robot of the social, companion class or type? It is the most frequently asked question that I encounter when demonstrating collaborative style robots. This question spans all age demographics and is often the opening query of knowledgeable analysts and investors. It is offered as question in search of an answer to what remains to be somewhat of a mystery. For the young – it is phrased as “what can this robot do?” but sounds more like “impress me”. For the more senior it is “why would I want this?” OK. Fair questions. When first encountered most social robots seem to be just computer tablets on wheels. And, sadly, most early social robot demonstrations seem to reinforce that view. They are made to dance or play a song to demonstrate their hardware construct, range of freedoms and gyroscopic features. Cool, it can dance and broadcast an MP4 file so, what’s next? Where is the utility?

This current stage of development of social robots seems however to be tracking to a positive set of attributes that better demonstrate current or potential utility. First, the overarching paradigm is that social robots represent a new style of interfaces to the world of knowledge and interactions with the world around us and thus the world around the robot. Out of these interactions will emerge ever more expansive human- robot interfaces. But here again the vector seems to be a deep reliance on A.I. to detect the state of mind, emotion, discussion or inquiry path the interacting human is on or facing. You don’t need a robot just to deliver the vast amount of the benefits of A.I. When that robotic based A.I. interaction is directed at a purposeful use case like helping a child understand a medical procedure or an autistic child develop a positive response to social cues it makes more sense.

Fundamentally, it seems to me that the initial support case for the utility of social robots points to the mobility of the robot. One you experience a robot coming to your location, especially if you yourself can’t easily move around, by simply calling for it or by driving it to you from a smartphone interface or planning it to show up at certain spot at a specific time you begin to sense “hey, this is better than my laptop”. I can even get it to follow me around. And the first time a robot motors around the house and seeks you out and determines whether you are sleeping or passed out- you will get it. Or, when the robot meanders into your meeting to get you on conference call you will discover the assistive features.

The next aspect I support of social robots one needs to consider that the world that has been created around us has been formulated and driven by our own ‘humanoid form’ construct. Chairs are designed for humans. Door knobs and handles are waist high. And when we encounter things in our life that are distinctly human such as a knee joint replacement surgery we see how a social humanoid robot can perform as guidance system to lead (and encourage) surgery recovery exercises. And with the growing lack of therapists and health aides – a humanoid robot is a prime ‘mirror like’ solution to lead these exercises – while the human caregivers can attend to things only humans can. So, a social, humanoid style robot seems to fill that gap and shortage nicely. Even more so, the session leading robot never tires or needs time off or a break.

Another aspect that has clinical cache supporting the case for robots is anthropomorphism. Fundamentally, people may not always believe what a computer system screen presents but they seemingly do trust a robot. Children have little trust in a doctor or a nurse but they do trust a robot when they are told by the robot that they will be OK when facing a medical or dental procedure. Placing faith in inanimate objects is a cultural attribute of humans and is easily subscribe to. Hence that ‘rabbits foot’ in your pocket or that ‘lucky shirt’ you wear on game day – anthropomorphism. Robots are loaded with it and thus can be put to purposeful missions like treating autism, giving instructions and sounding alerts that other devices cannot deliver as well or at all.

While there is a lot more to present and discuss as we experience the rise of the robots, mobility, human construct and anthropomorphism are my suggestions for beginning to answer the question – “why would I want a robot?” Next time, we will discuss the fact that they are engaging and fun!

Mike Radice is Chairman of the Technology Advisory at ChartaCloud Technologies and ROBOTTECA.com