How to interact with robots without embarrassing yourself

How to interact with robots without embarrassing yourself

“All these robots suffer from the same challenge: they need to anticipate,” says CITRIS researcher Anca Dragan. Doctoral students working with CITRIS Sustainable Infrastructures director Claire Tomlin set out to encourage robots to predict human behavior.

Wired: FEW THINGS IN this world are as exhausting as interacting with humans. You’ve got to maintain eye contact (ugh) and watch for subtle body language (ugh) and pay attention the whole time ( ugh). And if you think that’s tough, wait until you start interacting with robots, which aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer just yet. It’s going to be hell.

That is unless, of course, a particular breed of roboticist can get humans and machines to form a strange new kind of bond. This is the study of human-robot interaction, or HRI. Labs devoted to solving the many problems that come with working with machines are popping up all over the world.

Pouring energy and grant money into what is essentially robot therapy might seem silly if you’re mostly used to interacting with Roombas. But I can assure you, far more sophisticated machines will soon be entering your life. Security robots are already patrolling malls, while nurse robots deliver medicine and companion robots try to steal your heart.

And they’re not always the kind of hulking machines you’d imagine. “People look at robots and they’re made out of metal and they look like they can lift a lot of stuff,” says roboticist Anca Dragan, who studies HRI at UC Berkeley. “They look very, very strong, but not all robots are actually like that.” And a robot’s role will vary dramatically depending on how you engage with it.

Take Kuri. It’s got kind of an R2-D2 vibe going on. It rolls around your house and takes pictures of you. It giggles if you rub its head. But what it doesn’t do is physical labor, so its designers have had to nonverbally telegraph that to the user. That’s why they didn’t give it arms—no sense in getting your hopes up.

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Photo: Noah Berger