Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Robots are your friend

When TED tweeted this video of a TED talk by Cynthia Breazeal about robots I knew this would be something I was going to blog about. Some of the first science fiction I ever read was Asimov and I've always felt particularly attracted to his I, Robot stories. Ever since childhood, I expected flying cars and robots, not to mention space colonization to be a part of my future. I'm still waiting. But I needn't be all that disappointed, because the development of robots is further along than I thought! I might not be able to get a dependable robot nanny for my children, but perhaps there will be one for my grandchildren, or maybe a lovely 24/7 robot carer in my old age.

Cynthia Breazeal suggests some good uses for robots in her talk: communication, health, and play. She found out that people actually react to robots the way they react to humans and enjoy interacting with them for longer than they do with computers. For example, people were better motivated to collaborate with others when they 'met' with an expressive robot avatar of the other person, than when they were just talking to each other on a screen. When given fitness and health advice by a robot, people stuck to it longer than when given the same advice by a laptop. They also named their robots, dressed them and said goodbye to them when the experiment was over. Dr. Breazeal points out that "people behave like people, even when interacting with a robot". In fact this isn't just true with the very expressive social robots she designs. Plenty of people name their Roombas (robot vacuum cleaner), grow attached to them, and yes, even dress them, all without Roomba having a face or expressive limbs.

Clearly, there isn't really that much of a barrier to get people to like and interact with robots. A lot of us scream at inanimate objects already anyway. What's a bit more of a challenge, is to get that interaction to actually yield a result. I can talk to the appliances (which are really primitive robots) that I already own, such as my washing machine or my Roomba, but if I want them to work for me, I still have to interact with them by using some buttons, a view screen, and a bit of technical knowledge. I do not 'trust' my appliances to do their job, I don't praise them, or care if they find something difficult. I care that my laundry doesn't get done, but I don't care about the machine. It's still just an appliance, not something I can talk to, trust, engage with.

Dr. Breazeal develops robots that break away from being appliances. We do trust them, because they act like humans do. Similarly to the Asimov stories, her robots have adorable nicknames and childlike personalities. The entire audience gasps and aaaws when she shows the footage of Matt telling 'Leo' that Cookie Monster is bad and wants to take his cookies and Leo shies away in horror. People care about what Leo 'thinks' and how Leo 'feels'. That's why they spend longer sticking to a fitness program when a robot is coaching them. The robot visibly 'cares' about what they do, unlike the laptop that gives the same advice. Even though all this caring and loyalty is programmed into the robot, it does not make it any less real in social interaction. Social robots can become an integral part of our lives because they show they care about us and we can feel we care about them.

In a way, I felt Cynthia Breazeal was not adventurous enough in her predictions of robot activity. It's all very well to have a little me-bot to interact with family members across the globe, a robot personal trainer, and an -admittedly very interesting - part-virtual part-real interactive game, but I was hoping for more. She was inspired in her childhood by Star Wars while I look more to Asimov. In Star Wars, robots are personable, but they are mainly tools: R2D2 is a multi-tool and on-board mechanic. He can be used to store Death Star blueprints and deliver secret messages, and he can hack into less personable technology like locked doors. He is loved and trusted with a crucial role in an epic, galaxy-saving, conflict-laden adventure, but would probably be hardly more significant than a Roomba in a normal daily-life situation. In Asimov, Robby is the first robot nanny, whose sole purpose is to be a friend to a little girl. He doesn't have to cook or fix things or mow the lawn. He is a truly social creature. In later Asimov stories, human-like robots take on increasingly complex caring roles, up to and including caring for the entire human race. These robots are truly 'all about people'.

When I think of using robots in the home, I think of them not as personal trainers but as carers. Robots can have arms strong enough to lift people. When they are anthropomorphic they can carry out tasks like cleaning, cooking, answering the phone or the door, without adjustments needing to be made to the home itself. Robots can stay awake all night, they don't get distracted, preoccupied, or bored. How many people now put their relatives in care homes, or leave their children in nurseries, or find themselves in hospitals where there is high staff turnover, absenteeism, or a generally negative and negligent atmosphere? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to leave your family members in their own familiar surroundings at home, in the care of someone who has no other worry than caring for them, keeping them happy and secure, and keeping them occupied, entertained or even educate them? A robot could do all those things. With a robot on 24/7 caring duty, people wouldn't have to spend time doing the nitty-gritty of caring for, but could focus on the caring about. I believe that would improve relationships between people.

I would love a robot nanny who can watch the children while I work from home, who can do the school run when I'm not available, who can keep an eye on the other kids while I take one of them to the doctor or go and watch their dance recital, who knows lots of interesting new games and every single phonics song and never gets tired or grumpy or impatient. I'm there to do the parenting stuff that really matters (because I've also got a robot housekeeper), but robot nanny supports me. I think I'll name her Poppy for Mary Poppins... or maybe Phoebe for Nanny McPhee...

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