Researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), a private Israeli college, have found that humans are able to interact easily with robots even if these don’t look like humans and have very basic features. Their findings can help make robots easier to build, more reliable and cheaper, the researchers said.
The study won first place for a paper in the Robotics Research Competition at the RO-MAN 2018 — IEEE International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication conference in China last month, one of the largest in the world in this field.
The research was done by a multidisciplinary team of computer scientists, psychologists, designers and engineers, at the Media Innovation Lab of the Sammy Ofer School of Communication at the IDC.
Most robots today, the researchers said, like China’s Jia Jia, are designed as humanoids that mimic both human appearance and behavior.
“Building such a robot is generally complex and expensive and the result can create unrealistic expectations from the robot, leading to frustration” on the part of users, the researchers said in their study. “Therefore, the ability to create social interactions through minimal gestures in an abstract object could lead to a variety of simpler, cheaper and more reliable social objects, and could enable already existing objects to engage in social interactions through movement.”
As part of the study the researchers, led by Hadas Erel and student Lucy Anderson-Bashan, built a robot called GiMi. GiMi consists of a small ball moving on the surface of a bigger sphere. A robotic arm hidden inside the sphere had two motors and a magnet that enabled the smaller ball to move on the bigger sphere.
“It is an abstract object with no resemblance to humans,” nor to animals, household objects or familiar robots, said Erel in a phone interview.
GiMi the robot was designed to interact socially using only minimalistic movements. To create expressive movements, however, the gestures were designed in consultation with movement experts — a choreographer, a puppeteer and an animator.
Then, study participants were sent to interact with GiMi, who used only gestures as a form of communication. The participants were then questioned about their experiences.
The study showed that the participants gave a social meaning to the different gestures, differentiating mainly between “approach” — friendly and positive gestures — and “avoid” gestures — hesitant and negative ones — indicating willingness or not of the robot to interact with the participants.
“Through gestures we managed to create an experience of social interaction,” Erel said. “People said things like, It was happy to see me, or it was shy or it doesn’t want to interact.”
When robots are expected to use speech, she said, the experience can be frustrating for users, as speech is not always understood and does not always flow. “The technology is not there yet. This creates disappointment and frustration, and users stop using the robot,” Erel said.
The study showed that simple abstract objects that are designed with precise gestures can lead to significant social interaction experiences, said Erel, both positive and negative.
Respondents were able to interpret even the simplest gestures, indicating that there is no need for robot developers to make an effort to make robots resemble humans to enable engagement and feelings, she said.
Humans “are able to attribute social intentions to anything,” she said. “Even with something abstract, you can create social interaction.”
Therefore, the ability to create social interactions through minimal gestures in an abstract object can lead to a variety of simpler, cheaper, and more reliable social robots, Erel said, and can allow objects that we use every day to communicate with us through movement.
(This article was updated to correct the name of the robot to GiMi)