WMU Studies Our Relationship With Robots

May 18, 2015

The lab's humanoid robot JD
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Chad Edwards started the Communication and Social Robotics Lab at WMU with his wife and colleague Autumn. They have four robots in the lab.

Edwards says so far they’ve learned two things: some people are afraid of robots and, when they’re not, they tend to treat robots like humans. Edwards mentions the lab's humanoid robot J.D. It’s hard to describe J.D. as anything other than “adorable.” He’s no more than a foot tall and has big glowing eyes that take up most of his face. 

“Last fall we programmed J.D. to do Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance and at one point during this process we broke one of his arms. Smoke came out of it. And for the next week the students in the lab felt bad for J.D.," says Edwards. "It was, ‘Oh, J.D.’s hurt. We need to do robot surgery.’ As we were fixing J.D., they’re like talk to J.D.: ‘It’ll be all better soon.’ ‘We’re going to make you feel great.’” 

And because we treat robots like us, sometimes we expect them to communicate like us. Edwards says that’s where we get frustrated. It’s the lab’s mission to find out what gets lost in translation.

“So if we have to interact with a robot, what is the best way to do that? What are the best ways to have designers create the robots to interact with us? And so it’s creating this mixed method of how we can have better interactions,” says Edwards.

It might not seem important to consider our relationship with robots right now, but Edwards says in a few years social robots will be all over the U.S. They’re already pretty popular in other countries.

“Japan has a lot of elderly people right now and they don’t have enough workers to take care of them. And so in countries like Japan you’re seeing this rise of social robots to take some of the load off of nurses, so that the robots can interact there," he says.  

"And so we’re seeing that trickle effect here in the United States. And so in education we’re seeing social robots being used to teach little kids about exercise or second languages.”

There’s even a robot that looks like a harp seal designed to comfort people with dementia.

“It’s a small seal that moves its tail, it moves its head, and it makes little purring noises," says Edwards. "And so a person that needs therapy will stroke the seal, can talk to it, can play with it and it brings interaction based on how they move with it.”

Most of Edwards robots are simple “telepresence robots”—basically a chest-high Skype-like video screen on wheels. 

Chad Edwards on the screen of a teleprescence robot they call Alex
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“So imagine you have a little kid who has some type of disease and can’t attend school. They could attend school in some variety using this telepresence robot. They would be able to move around their classroom, interact with their peers in their class," he says.

"Or if someone didn’t want to fly to a business meeting, they could simply use a robot there.”

Edwards says starting this fall their robot Alex will be Western’s new library assistant.

“The students are spread out throughout the library at various study carrels or desks. And so by having a roaming librarian on a computer on a robot that’s going to attract student attention we think, but it’s also going to be able to extend the librarian’s reach. They can only walk around so far. Here they can sit in their office, they can do the work they need to—at the same time drive the robot around to interact with students.”

During one of their first experiments in the lab, college students heard a lecture from two robots—one from a telepresence robot with the teacher on the screen and one from a digital avatar of the teacher. Both delivered the exact same lesson in the teacher’s voice. Edwards says what they found was very interesting:

“When it came to credibility they found that the robot was as competent as the teacher in this small four-minute teaching lesson," he says. "That they evaluated the teacher as being more caring and having more character. So when it came to the sort of social, personal relationships they liked the teacher using the robot better than the perceived autonomous robot. But in terms of how well they taught the lesson, they were equal.”

But this convenience may come with a price. What if turns out robots can do jobs we thought only we could do? What if they’re used to spy on us? What if they change the way we interact with humans? 

“It’s a matter of the people designing the robots and how we use them," Edwards says. "Our sort of general feeling is robots are coming, so let’s figure out ways to make them work for us. Let’s figure out positive ways of interacting with robots and ways they can help humanity instead of hurting humanity.”