People often find robots baffling and even frightening. Leila
Takayama, a social scientist, has found ways to smooth out their rough
edges. Through numerous studies and experiments that look at how people
react to every aspect of robots, from their height to their posture,
Takayama has come up with key insights into how robots should look and
act to gain acceptance and become more useful to people.
Takayama has had an especially big influence on the design of an advanced robot from Willow Garage, the startup she works for in Menlo Park, California. Called PR2 (see “Robots That Learn from People”), it’s an early prototype of a new generation of robots that promise to be indispensable to the elderly, people with physical challenges, or anyone who simply needs a little help around the home or office.
PR2 can fold laundry and fetch drinks, among other impressive tasks. But Takayama suspected that the nest of a half-dozen cameras originally perched on PR2’s head would alienate users. To find out, she turned to crowdsourcing, showing images of the robot head to an online audience recruited for the purpose. The results verified her concerns, and she successfully lobbied to jettison all but a few of the cameras, some of which were redundant.