Robots are moving in to our homes, but there’s no killer app
December 5, 2016
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by Elaine Chen, Entrepreneur in Residence, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship
(this piece originally appeared on The Conversation)

Not too long ago, robots were giant, caged things, mainly found in automotive manufacturing lines. Social robotics was a new field of research pursued by the best and brightest in university research labs.

In the past few years, however, it seems that social robots have finally come of age. All of a sudden, the market is teeming with products. Some are distinctly humanoid.

The rise of social robots

Softbank Robotics’ Nao, Pepper and Romeo all have a head and two arms. With their stylised designs, they deftly avoid the “uncanny valley” of human-machine interfaces (realistic enough to look human, but non-human enough to look spooky).

Others are more subdued in their anthropomorphism. Blue Frog Robotics’ Buddy sports an animated face on a screen, and scoots around on wheels. Jibo is yet more subtle in its ability to evoke humanity, with its stationary base and a head that can turn and nod.

What is a social robot, and what makes it special?

In her seminal paper, “Towards sociable robots”, Professor Breazeal, inventor of Jibo, describes social robots as follows:

“(Social robots have) the ability to interact with people in an entertaining, engaging, or anthropomorphic manner.”

The most noticeable quality in the interactions between a person and a social robot is the emotion. This can be partially achieved via a speech-based interface. For example, Amazon is reputedly working on an enhancement to Alexa, the virtual assistant that lives inside the Echo device, to help it understand emotion. China’s Turing Robot goes a step further, and claims that its Turing Robot OS already understands emotion.

However, Dr. Breazeal’s research has demonstrated that adding non-verbal cues via physical gestures can have a profound effect in increasing people’s engagement, trust and confidence with the robot. In her 2010 TED talk, she discussed how people interacted with a robotic diet-and-exercise coach significantly longer than they did with the exact same coaching program running on a computer. A disembodied voice coming out of a mobile device, or a cylinder on the kitchen counter, leaves a lot of engagement on the table.

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