Wednesday, 4 January 2012

How Do You Make A Robot That People Will Talk To? Make It As Cute As Wall-E

Cuteness is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It discourages exhausted new parents from murdering their screaming infants, itmakes bloggers into millionaires, and it may be more effective than fancy artificial intelligence when it comes to getting robots to interact well with humans. That's the idea behind Boxie, a robot created by Alexander Reben at MIT Media Lab. Reben wanted to design a robot that could approach people and get them to answer interview questions on camera. (As someone who crosses the street to avoid human camera crews hunting for "man on the street" material, I can assure you this is no small feat.) But he also needed the robot to be inexpensive, rugged, and lightweight. Amazingly, simply making the robot adorable solved all these problems at once.
Once the robot has snared someone's attention, it continues pulling the psychological levers of cuteness to get people to help it do its job. Granted, not everyone Boxie meets takes a shine to its cutesy act--Reben discovered that people sometimes abused the robot (which he monitored via accelerometers and force sensors in its chassis). But Boxie was still able to fulfill a pretty complex, interactive mission without resorting to sophisticated, expensive machine learning or computer vision technology. Simply being cute allows Boxie to "offload" a lot of the complicated aspects of initiating and sustaining an interaction onto its human target. It's an utterly brilliant bit of interaction design that makes an end run around the "hard problems" of robotics and artificial intelligence, not to mention some practical issues of industrial engineering. Robot designs like Boxie aren't going to replace the work-borgs on factory floors, but for addressing the arguably more challenging problems of relating to human beings in unpredictable situations, Boxie shows that infantile likeability can be more effective than smarts. 
source new scientist

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