Teaching "etiquette" to robots

Which gaze makes you trust the robot most? Left: looks down at bottle. Center: follows raised bottle. Right: Looks at human after raising bottle. Credit: University of British Columbia

The trend is towards a greater pervasiveness of robots and a growing awareness that indeed robots are becoming part of the landscape and we are interacting with them.

Today there are already many robots around but most of the time we are not perceiving them (as when I board the metro rail in Turin, where a robot is actually taking me around...) or we equate them to "machine as usual" as when we look at them working in an assembly line, or using them in a kitchen to prepare food.

In South Korea robots have appeared in postal office to help people as they queue waiting for a clerk and sometimes the robot, in a humanoid shape, can solve the problem.

As robots assume a more explicit interaction with us we are confronted with a new species that does not have, at least so far, our way of communicating using implicit signals. These are quite important to us. When you meet a friend, or a stranger, there is much more than is going on in the interaction than the mere exchange of words. A smile, and arched brow, the posture of the body are all sending messages that add to the information spoken through words, and sometimes "change" the meaning of the words spoken.

This is what a team of researchers at the British Columbia University are studying and trying to address. Having a robots that can send implicit signals when communicating with a person. 

They have developed a robot that uses gaze to establish a "feeling" with the person interacting with it.  It is not a new avenue. Baxter, was probably the first robot that was equipped with a screen where eyes were displayed to give the person interacting with it a sense of a humanlike communications.

However, Charlie -this is the name of the British Columbia Robot- goes a step forward: it emulates the behaviour of a person doing a certain task. When asked to pick up a bottle and give it to a customer its head looks down on the object, the bottle, that it is picking up and once picked up its gaze moves to look at the person it is supposed to hand over the bottle. This is very much what a person would do!

It is interesting to see how researchers are moving forward in robotics. It is no more just focussing on the execution of an action but it is about its contextualisation and becoming part of an ambient. And good manners require learning the etiquette!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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