Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots

Most of us have seen employees of Boston Dynamics kicking their robots, and many of us instinctively react with horror. More recently I’ve watched my own robots being petted, applauded for their achievements, and yes, even kicked.

Why do people react the way they do when mechanical creations are treated as if they were people, pets, or worse? There are some very interesting things to learn about ourselves when considering the treatment of robots as subhuman. But it’s equally interesting to consider the ramifications of treating them as human.

The Boston Dynamics Syndrome

Shown here are two snapshots of Boston Dynamics robots taken from their videos about Spot and Atlas. Why do scenes like this create the empathic reactions they do? Two possible reasons come to mind. One is that the we anthropomorphize the human-shaped one, meaning we think of it as human. That’s easy to do since not only is it human-shaped but the video shows it carrying a box using human-like movements. The second snapshot perhaps evokes the strongest reactions in anyone who owns a dog, though its similarity to any four-legged animal will usually do.

Is it wrong for Boston Dynamics, or anyone else, to treat robots in this way? Being an electronic and mechanical wizard, you might have an emotional reaction and then catch yourself with the reminder that these machines aren’t conscious and don’t feel emotional pain. But it may be wrong for one very good reason.

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How do you think this quadcopter feels?

how-does-this-quadcopter-feel

You don’t speak the language of dogs and yet you can tell when one is angry, excited, or down in the dumps. How does that work, and can it be replicated by a robot? That’s the question which [Megha Sharma] set out to study as part of her graduate research at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

The experiment starts by training the robot in a series of patterns meant to mimic emotion. How, you might ask? Apparently you hire an actor trained in Laban Movement. This is a method of describing and dealing with how the human body moves. It’s no surprise that the technique is included in the arsenal of some actors. The training phase uses stationary cameras (kind of like those acrobatic quadcopter projects) to record the device as it is moved by the actor.

Phase two of the experiment involves playing back the recorded motion with the quadcopter under its own power. A human test subject watches each performance and is asked to describe how the quadcopter feels. The surprising thing is that when asked they end up anthropomorphising the inanimate device even further; making up small stories about what the thing actually wants.

It’s an interesting way to approach the problem of the uncanny valley in robotic projects.

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Android skips uncanny valley – fills in at the office for you

For those that are unaware, Androids are often judged by where they fall on the uncanny valley curve, a graph that maps human revulsion to robots that closely resemble humans but are just a bit off (similar to how a corpse resembles a living person). This offering jumps right over that dip of the curve and takes its rightful place as a human stand-in. Well, except that you’re probably going to notice the limbless torso… but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

This is the result of research by Geminoid Lab at Aalborg University. It is the twin of its creator and in an effort to be as human as possible, movements are mimicked using facial recognition from a human operator. We’d bet that with some clever learning routines you can map out and index common mannerisms from the original person for later use with this body-snatcher-esque copy. Take a look at the clips after the break; we don’t think you’ll be creeped out at all.

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Hackaday links: August 15, 2010

Creepy or not?

Do you find these faces creepy or cute? They can display a huge range of facial gestures and the German engineers who designed them were trying to avoid the uncanny valley. That’s the point at which human features on a robot seem quite real, but are off in just the right way as to cause revulsion. [Thanks Simon]

Water in your ink cartridge

Like all great hackers [Dean] digs through his neighbors’ trash. He found an inkjet printer but wanted to test it out before buying new cartridges. The old ones were dried up but he revitalized them with an injection of filtered water. It might get you through that quick printing project without a trip to Walgreen’s.

Laser-cut LP record

[Niklas Roy] demonstrates a laser-cut LP record. He’s using acrylic as a medium, kind of like a big CD with grooves in it. He’s got several tracks that are simple loops instead of the longer spirals you may be familiar with. They definitely sound different but it’s up to you to decide if that’s by design, or a fluke.

Star Wars cinema

Ever wonder what to do with those classic toys you’ve got sitting around? Here’s a little video that envisions your life with an AT-AT as the house pet. [Thanks Gabe via Wired]