New research reveals the potential for social connection between humans and robots

 1 January 2024 12 April 2022
12 April 2022

New research from the University of Hertfordshire reveals how humans could develop more natural, social interactions with robots in the future.

The new human-robot interaction research, published in Adaptive Behavior, is the first ever to evaluate people’s perception and interaction with an intrinsically motivated robot that has been designed to appear sociable and companiable.

‘Intrinsic motivations’ are computational modes that try to replicate what motivates humans or other organisms at a primal level, for example the drive of a baby to explore its own limbs and how they work.

Scientists hope that the findings of this latest study will influence the way engineers design robots in the future – the results could be key to developing robots that people might one day accept in their daily lives and in their homes.

The study used a BB-8 style robot, produced by Sphero as Star Wars merchandise. To make the robot appear more sociable, scientists programmed the robot with algorithms to simulate curious and playful adaptation to its own experience. They set the robot to have either simple reactions, or to adapt their behaviour based on interaction with a human partner. Researchers then measured participants’ responses as they interacted with the robot, in particular noting that the adaptive robot was perceived as having more ‘warmth’. In a nutshell, the curious and adaptive robot was seen as more social and friendly.

Dr Marcus Scheunemnn, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire and Senior Robotics Engineer at BotsAndUs, commented: “Traditionally robots have been preprogrammed and do repetitive tasks. However, it is very unlikely that we will be able to programme all tasks for all the ever-changing homes and environments out there. Therefore it is important that robots can explore new things and learn to adapt to new experiences – this is the way forward for them to cope with human-made, fast-changing environments.

"The really cool thing is that we did not programme the robot's behaviour explicitly. We just gave it the rules to be curious and let it create behaviours to explore its environment. We used this robot in a genuine, physical human-robot interaction experiment, something that hasn't been done before.”

Dr Christopher Salge, Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire added: “Understanding the way people instinctively react to robots will help us consider how they could be assimilated more into day-to-day life in future. We might think of robots as cold and mechanical – and that’s how they’ve traditionally been shown in popular culture. But if you feel a robot is sociable, or even empathetic, you will intuitively have a different response to it. This could help build trust and acceptance, for example of driverless cars, healthcare aids and domestic help.”

Professor Daniel Polani explained: “Humans are very sensitive to behaviours and emotions. We even form emotional relationships with objects and brands. And we’re not the only animal to have this ‘cuteness detection’ – but robots don’t have it, of course. We can endow robots with these properties through careful design choices.”

In future, the research team aims to explores how robots can memorise these behaviours and interactions for future decision-making, as robots move beyond simple pre-programmed tasks to creating autonomous, meaningful behaviour.

‘Human Perception of Intrinsically Motivated Autonomy in Human-Robot Interaction’ is now published in Adaptive Behavior. Visit their website to read the full paper.

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