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Why Human-Robot Interaction Is The Key To Unlocking the Potential of Robotics

The potential for facilitating and streamlining our lives with robots is huge. There are so many ways that the technology could make our lives easier, already demonstrated by the applications of robotics in industries as various as aerospace and healthcare. The benefits of robotics within industry are becoming ever-clearer, yet it is not only industry that stands to gain from developments in the space. For consumers, too, the rise of the robots promises a new era in time and labour saving that will have a significant effect on our day-to-day lives.

One problem: user acceptance. We are still at a point where the public’s perceptions of robots are largely lifted from the media, exacerbated, in part, by the widespread press exposure given to the most uncannily humanoid versions. A key barrier to user acceptance is comfort with the robot physically, cognitively and emotionally (see these papers by (Juniper Research, 2015 and SPARC, 2015, for more information). Nonetheless, it does not need to be that way; humanoid robots are just one small facet of an endless possibilities for robotics in the world at large.

Culture

The acceptance of robots into everyday life is shaped by a range of factors. Social, cultural, political and economic context are, of course, key to how attitudes and opinions are formed. It is little surprise, therefore, that receptiveness to human-robot interaction varies from one region to the next.

The technology-centred contemporary culture of Japan, for example, is considered perhaps the most receptive to robots of all kinds. Studies of Europeans have also demonstrated generally positive and permissive perceptions of robots. Some Middle Eastern cultures, and those dominated by religions that reject the representation or reproduction of the human form, whilst enthusiastic about innovative technologies, prefer non-humanoid robots to those which resemble the human body.

For the purpose of this blog, we will focus on European attitudes to robots, and particularly the introduction of the technology beyond the production line, into the social sphere. When we speak of the social sphere, we include the integration of robots into customer-facing roles in industry, as well as their integration within the home, where regular human-robot interaction is primary.

Areas Of Optimum Receptiveness

A 2015 study* into European attitudes towards robots found that life domains in which robots have been used for a long time, such as manufacturing and space exploration, as well as in life-saving applications in healthcare, military, and disaster relief, are linked to strong positive perceptions. Beyond these domains, however, the study found that there was less public receptiveness, perhaps as a result of preconceived ideas of robotics based on their portrayal in Hollywood movies.

That being said, the receptiveness to robots in these critical areas demonstrates that there is significant potential. Europeans can clearly already see that there are beneficial uses for robotics. Cultural perceptions are not set in stone, and customer service robots may be the bridge into acceptance within the social sphere. That is, if the technology is rolled out with sensitivity towards those current cultural perceptions.

Emotionally-Intelligent Robots

Key to this will be creating effective emotional communication between humans and robots. Work on “emotion classifying” algorithms in order to teach empathy and emotional intelligence in robots is underway. We can already see the results of these labours developing in increments as new iterations of customer service robots are released.

Moving Beyond Novelty Value

Nonetheless, we must not rest on the laurels of novelty value, for this superficial aspect will wear thin quickly. Focus must be on robots that are both emotionally intelligent and demonstrate practical effectiveness to rival their human counterparts. This aspect, in particular, is central to the BotsAndUs philosophy. Whilst Bo brings fun and entertainment wherever he works, he also demonstrates innovativeness and practicality, whilst championing the very real notion of human-robot symbiosis that we strongly believe in.

The entertainment value of customer service robots, particularly in Hospitality, performs a key function in driving forward positive perception. But it also provides a gateway to the recognition of the sheer usefulness and effectiveness of a society in which we collaborate with robots for the betterment of our lives.

At BotsAndUs, we have been working on robotic technology for the past 24 months, and 80+ interviews with subjects of all ages have revealed that the visual, physical (mobility) and audio reactions of the robot in various social conditions - the robot’s personality and its ability to interact - are the crucial elements that lead to a connection with the product and the comfort of having it in the proximity of humans. We therefore aim to create a human-robot interface that would support this long awaited breakthrough in consumer robotics.

The potential of robotics lies within its ability to expand human well being and happiness, by alleviating us from the mundane extraneous tasks to which we are currently bound. Robotics can and will be a liberating force for individuals, industry, and society as a whole, with the chance to develop a collaborative and all-round easier future already in our hands.

* “Social Robots From A Human Perspective” (Chapter 2: Robot Shift From Industrial Production to Social Reproduction) - Taipale, de Luca, Sarrica and Fortunati, 2015
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