Social robots look set to become increasingly ubiquitous – their potential touted in healthcare, education, aged care, customer service and retail. Trials are already underway in Australia, placing humanoid bots at airports and shopping centres to guage the public's reaction to them.
But as social robots become more commonplace, there has emerged a need to measure our interactions with them.
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Nicole Robinson is seeking to develop a psychometric scale for human-robot interactions, and is appealing to the public to take part in her study.
"We are still trying to find out what bond or connection, if at all, is formed when interacting with a robot," Robinson explains.
"Some people may really enjoy it and feel a strong degree of comfort around a robot or bond to it, whereas others may not feel convinced about it and may not want to do it again. We are still learning what separates these two types of people from each other."
While a limited number of scales relating to human-robot interactions exist, these measure a human's trust in a robot (such as the 'Trust Perception Scale-HRI'), or their attitudes towards it (like the 'Negative Attitudes Towards Robots Scale' or NARS).
Robinson, a researcher with QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, is seeking to develop a measure of an individuals response to a robot in a one-to-one setting.
“The creation of a psychometric scale to evaluate a human-robot interaction could have wide individual and industry application, such as finding out how people react to an interaction with a health, tutor or worker robot in their home environment or workplace,” she said.
“The opinions and perspectives from the general public on this topic will help us to discover how we could develop a robot’s task, role or behaviour to make it more acceptable and functional to use for people."
The study involves participants watching a video of a robot and a person discussing a topic, followed by a short questionnaire.
Comforting or confronting?
It is likely most of us will become more comfortable around robots as our exposure to them increases, Robinson says.
"We don’t think too much about interacting with a smartphone, computer or tablet, once you have a lot of experience with it and have done it many times. As a society, more knowledge, exposure, and practice with robots may make it less overwhelming to people who have never interacted with a robot before. It could follow in a similar pattern to other types of technology and become another regular type of tech around us in the near future."
However, that might not be true for everyone, Robinson adds.
"Some people may never feel comfortable with robots, and the same with other types of technology. Some people may find robots too similar to themselves to feel comfortable around. It may go the other way, that robots are too confronting when they are made to look like people and don’t become commonplace because of this," she added.
Social robotics has become an area of intensive research in Australia. UTS’ Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory, the so-called ‘Magic Lab’, has recently begun exploring our interactions with androids.
Last year the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) and real estate giant Stockland took delivery of Chip – a model REEM from Spain’s PAL Robotics – working with UTS and researchers from the Australian Technology Network of Universities to test people's reactions to it in the field.
A major hurdle they face is overcoming the public's perception about how advanced robotics technology really is.
"One of the biggest challenges is what people are expecting robots to be able to do, and what real robots can actually do," says Robinson.
"The robots we have now are nowhere near as sophisticated and advanced as the movie robots. Some people try to interact with robots similar to the way they would expect a movie robot or real person to interact, and can sometimes feel disappointed or confused when they don’t respond perfectly."
As a society, we will also need to consider how social robots are introduced, Robinson adds.
"We need to be careful ... and make sure it is done in a way that people find comfortable and acceptable," she said. "A big challenge in future would be people pushing robots into areas too fast and too soon, which is not appropriate or helpful for anyone."