What makes a robot creepy?

While the CSIRO is focused on manufacturing-type robots and not humanoids, the “creepy” factor will need to be considered by the organisation at some point in the future, according to Jonathan Roberts

Robotics has come a long way since Star Wars was released in 1977 when people fell in love with Luke Skywalker's diminutive beep-booping companion R2D2.

More than 35 years on, robots are now capable of playing soccer, supporting elderly people to stay in their homes and fetching beer from the fridge.

But as the complexity and sophistication of humanoid robots increase, researchers will need to consider more than just whether a robot can stand upright and navigate to the fridge to get a cold beverage.

According to Jonathan Roberts, director of CSIRO’s Autonomous Systems Lab, one of the issues advances in robotics will raise is the question of aesthetics. Or, as he puts it, how can you make robots not seem too creepy?

The aesthetics of robots can involve detail as minute as the shape of a robot’s eye, which can make it appear either creepy or friendly, and is an area that will need more focus, Roberts said.

He said while the CSIRO is focused on manufacturing-type robots and not humanoids, the “creepy” factor will need to be considered by the organisation at some point in the future.

This will become even more important as technology develops and robots become more human-like and their scale increases to the size of humans.

“We haven’t [looked at it] so far, but only because our robots are so utterly not like people or animals and it hasn’t been a concern so far. But I think it’s something that we will have to consider in the future,” Roberts said.

“The whole creepy thing is very interesting. You’ve got to really do your research on what things look like. If it looks too human or animal-like but it’s clearly not [a human or an animal], people do think it’s creepy.

“But it does seem to be socially specific and culturally specific. So what’s creepy to an Australian might not be creepy to a Japanese person, for example.”

While Roberts said he wasn’t completely sure what type of robots Australians would prefer, he said it would more likely be a preference for robots that don’t have human characteristics. In countries like Japan, he said the attitude is different.

“In Japan, people particularly love humanoid robots. In other cultures it's sometimes seen as slightly creepy,” he said.

Roberts warned that ethical issues around robots will also need to be examined in the future.

Robert Sparrow, associate professor, school of philosophical, historical and international studies at Monash University, has warned there are major ethical implications with military robots.

While the CSIRO does not carry out research on military robotics, Roberts said any code of ethics needs to reflect the technology of the day.

“We can’t necessarily use ethical codes that were developed before anyone even thought about the technology. It’s a constantly moving field,” he said.

CSIRO development

With budget cuts recently announced for the CSIRO, Roberts said he is still optimistic about robotics development at the organisation and in Australia and said it’s a growing area of research.

“People want more productive workplaces and they have to, to remain competitive. They also want a safer workplace, and robotics is one tool that will help both of those things,” he said.

“We have a unique economy in Australia, so we have a lot of field-type applications, with mining and agriculture, and a lot of the environment to look after … We’ve got all these hotspots where it’s inevitable that robotics will be used, so we definitely see this as a growth activity in CSIRO.”

Robotics research at the organisation is currently centred on assistive robots for the workplace. This research focuses on three areas – co-worker robots, telesupervised robots and augmentation.

Co-worker robotics looks at how robots can be used in factories or warehouses to work alongside humans. For example, Roberts said robots could be ordered to fetch tools from a storeroom for a human operator or to carry out tasks humans are unable to that require precision or strength.

Telesupervised robots would also work alongside humans, but not side-by-side. Robotic tasks could include carrying heavy or hot materials or working underground in mining applications.

“You could build a very precise, small assembly robot and have a human controlling them via a joint interface,” Roberts said.

“Then there’s a class of technology we call augmentation, where there’s not necessarily a robot involved but we use robot technology to make the human more superhuman. You’ll have seen examples of this already; things like Google Glasses.”

While technological advances in manufacturing have meant some human processes have become obsolete, Roberts said assistive robots do not pose the same danger because completely “smart” robots are not yet available.

“They’re nowhere near as smart [and] they can’t actually perceive the world as well as people and they won’t be able to do any of those things for a very long time,” he said.

“I think there’s this realisation in the robotics world that we need to team up robots and people and use the best things from both, and that’s how we actually improve productivity and improve safety. It’s about using the best bits of people and the best bits of robots and have them work as a team.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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