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News Link • Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Applying the tools of social science to make robots easier to live and work with

• Willow Garage via

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.

More recently, Takayama has devoted effort to improving a robot called Project Texai, which is operated directly by humans rather than running autonomously. She ran an extensive field study to find out how Project Texai fit into the office environment of several different companies, coming by each office every two weeks to collect feedback and observe interactions between on-site staff and robots operated by remote colleagues. That study led to a surprising insight: “When you control a telepresence robot, there comes a point for a lot of people when they feel as if the robot is their body,” she explains. “They don’t want people to stand too close or touch the buttons on the screen.”

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