Discussions about robotics often focus on their superiority over their human counterparts, but increasingly, researchers are finding that the next challenge for the future of robotics is creating machines that can capture the nuances of what it is to be human, and create an environment where humans and machines can effectively work together.
If science fiction is to be believed, we ought to be very wary of the integration of robots into society. In the bleak fictional future, robots are untrustworthy creatures who steal jobs, take over the world, or convince unsuspecting humans to fall in love with them. But as a future where human robot collaboration becomes closer to reality, the possibilities of humans and robots working together are far less dystopian than fiction would have us believe.
“Anytime I mention robotics in public, most people want to say something about robots taking our jobs or taking over, but that really isn’t what I see happening in my research in the field of social robotics,” said UNSW researcher Belinda Dunstan.
“There isn’t this strong binary of ‘us’ vs ‘them’, but rather I see fantastic cases of robots working alongside humans in collaborative team relationships which allows humans to get back to the ‘human’ side of their work, while the robot does the repetitive or tedious tasks.”
If this research comes to fruition, we could soon be seeing robots in a variety of collaborative roles.
“In my opinion, the jobs that will benefit the most are ones that used to have a hugely ‘human’ element to them, be that creativity, sensitivity, abstract reasoning, care, etc, and are now just automated because of demands on time or production, such as overworked aged care nurses, or a dessert chef who repeats the same design over and over,” Dunstan said.
“Here, there is an opportunity to take the repetitive, tedious or straining work out of the equation, and allow the human to return to the interesting, inspiring and important elements of their work.”
But there are some significant challenges facing the engineers developing robots that could be part of this kind of work. Not only do robots need to be able to understand the nuances of interpersonal interactions, but engineers need to create robots that people trust to be part of their team.
Communication is key
If humans and robots are to work collaboratively, they need to be able to communicate with the the same nuances that inform the most productive interpersonal interactions.
“Say you’re doing something in a kitchen and you’re in a close collaborative space. By observing the other person and watching them, you don’t have to ask them what they’re doing, it’s self evident, and you operate in partnership, and do things with them based on your observations, and your shared understanding of what you’re doing together,” said Dr Elizabeth Croft, the newly appointed Dean of Engineering at Monash University.
“So what we need to be able to do is to create between a human and a robot that same type of shared understanding of the task, the understanding of who is doing what in the roles and the quick verbal, but also non-verbal communication that happens between partners when they’re doing a task together.”
The problem, according to Science Robotics, is that it can be difficult to program these nuances:
“As common as social interactions are in our daily lives, we have very few comprehensive, quantitative analyses of human social responses; our understanding of human social behavior is not nearly as advanced as our knowledge of Newtonian mechanics or even human visual perception.”
– Yang et al, Science Robotics, 31 Jan 2018
Croft is part of a growing group of researchers who aren’t convinced the answer lies in trying to create robots that can perfectly mimic humans.
“You need a robot that is efficient, but also has the right affordances and the right behaviours to be able to collaborate well, so instead of CP30 you’re looking at R2D2,” she said, referencing the famous droids in Star Wars.
“What are the behaviours that those devices have that are human-ish, but not necessarily humanoid, that still makes them understandable, still make them usable, as if they were a partner.”
A collaborative effort
It’s a solution that has already been investigated by US-based startup Mayfield Robotics. Their staff, composed of engineers, animators from Pixar and creative writers, have created a robot named Kumi that might soon be in homes and offices.
“They’re taking cues from some of fiction’s friendlier robots – think the droids in Star Wars or Wall-E – and blending it with the latest thinking on how our brains work to create real-life robots that may make us more inclined to accept these technologies into our lives,” Quartz reported.
While Kumi is designed to be used in homes, the collaborative work that Mayfield is doing might have applications far beyond the domestic sphere and could foster meaningful interactions between humans and robots.
Dunstan has written an undergraduate social robotics unit at UNSW, which invites students across all faculties to learn about human-robot interaction (HRI).
“Fostering this kind of interdisciplinary approach to robotics research is so important because people are complex, and so is interaction,” she said.
“We are doing the ‘robot’ part of HRI better every day, but the ‘human’ part requires contributions from a range of fields beyond engineering. Interdisciplinary approaches to robotics help to avoid technocentrism, where technology marches forward and people just have to adapt, rather than having technology research approach the human sphere with sensitivity and creativity.”
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