Robot relationship experts believe they have cracked the difficult question of how to make humans get along with mechanical beings. Their answer? Ask not what you can do for your robot, but what your robot can do for you.
Eggheads at the Penn State College of Communications have found that people have warmer feelings towards robots when the machines are helping them in some way. Conversely, people tend to have negative feelings about a robot if they feel the machine needs to be looked after.
S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications at Penn State, said: "When humans perceive greater benefit from the robot, they are more satisfied in their relationship with it, and even trust it more. In addition, we found that when the robot cares for you, it seems to have greater social presence.
"Social presence is particularly important in human-robot interactions and areas of artificial intelligence because the ultimate goal of designing and interacting with social robots is to provide users with strong feelings of socialness.”
He examined the relationships between man and machine by watching students engage with Nao, a humanoid robot designed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics.
They set up two different scenarios, asking students to help Nao calibrate its eyes, or asking them to submit to an eye examination by the robot in which it offered advice about how to improve their vision.
When they were asked about their feelings towards the robot, researchers found they were more positive about the robot when it was helping them. They consistently rated the helpful robot as having a higher social presence and benefit.
Sundar added: "For robot designers, this means greater emphasis on role assignments to robots. How the robot is presented to users can send important signals to users about its helpfulness and intelligence, which can have consequences for how it is received by end users."
The researchers are now planning to repeat the experiment in places where robots are already looking after humans. "We have just finished collecting data at a local retirement village in State College with the Homemate robot which we brought in from Korea," Sundar continued. "In that study, we are examining differences in user reactions to a robot that is an assistant versus one that is framed as a companion."
The research has been published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. ®