Thursday, July 28, 2016

The attack of the cute robots

     Tuesday's post on cuteness in Japan and its future as an academic field was long enough, but there was more: this sidebar on cuteness and robotics. Both originated last week as a package for Mosaic, the London-based web site run by Britain's Wellcome Trust. They publish their work under a Creative Commons license, meaning you are free to repost or reprint it as you like, provided you credit Mosaic, which posts a fascinating long form journalism on topics of health and science every week, and link back to the original article.

     When iRobot designed the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, they made it round, so it wouldn’t get stuck in corners. They made it low, so it could scoot under beds and sofas.
     They did not think about making it cute.
     “It wasn’t designed with cuteness in mind,” says Charlie Vaida, a senior manager at the Massachusetts firm, “but with the realization that it would need to move about an ever-changing home environment.”
     But cute it is, for a 3.8 kg self-moving disc. Its plaintive chirp for help when it gets stuck behind a sofa leg, and the tentative way it bangs into an obstacle a few times before turning away – a clumsy movement straight out of Konrad Lorenz’s Kindchenschema, from his 1943 paper describing the ‘innate releasing mechanisms’that prompt affection and nurture in human beings ­– have an effect on customers.
     “When they initially rolled this product out, they had a return policy: if something breaks on the robot, send it back, and we’ll return you a new product the same day,” says Brian Scassellati, founder and director of Yale University’s Social Robotics Lab.
     “The idea was you should be without your vacuum cleaner for as little time as possible. What they got was this huge outpouring of unhappiness: people didn’t want to send back their robot and get some other robot. They wanted their robot back. They had become attached to this thing, to the point where the idea of putting a strange robot into their homes is unacceptable.”
     People also named their Roombas, a common fate for cute robots. When Catalia Health tested its robotic weight-loss coaches in patients’ homes, they returned after two months to collect them. Catalia found the patients had dressed the robots up in hats and scarves, given them names, and did not want to let their companions go.
     While cuteness has long been a hook when selling dolls, purses and other consumer products, one cutting-edge area where cuteness has proven particularly vital is personal robotics.
     “Absolutely,” says Scassellati. “We design educational robots for kids. We try to make them cute and attractive. That’s a very deliberate design choice, to get over the initial response: ‘Do I want to play with this thing or not?’”
     Science fiction has trained us to expect robot butlers and bodyguards, but the first generation of consumer robots are filling more limited, psychological roles. “Most likely the first robots in your home will not be lifting boxes, carrying groceries, washing dishes,” says Scassellati. “Instead, they’ll be doing things that involve social response: reminding you where you left your keys or to take your medication, helping you do your homework. These are tasks we can accomplish without direct physical manipulation.”
     Robots right now are best at time-consuming, repetitive interpersonal tasks, and two realms where they are beginning to succeed commercially are educating small children and helping people with dementia, autism and mental health problems. One of the most successful robots on the market is PARO, a $6,000 robotic baby harp seal found in nursing homes and psychiatric institutions around the world.
     Its designer, Japanese engineer Takanori Shibata, at first thought of making PARO a robotic cat or dog – people love cats and dogs. But he realised two things. First, they tend to love either cats or dogs, so there would need to be two versions of PARO: one cat, one dog.    

     And second, they’ve seen cats and dogs, and thus a robotic replica, no matter how skilfully made, would fall into the ‘uncanny valley’ of artificial creatures who look just real enough to be creepy. Nobody wants to cuddle a creepy robotic dog.
     Most people, however, have never held a baby harp seal, and thus they accept PARO. Its microprocessors allow PARO to bob its head, look at the person holding it, bat its long eyelashes, and coo and trill in an appealing way. In 2009, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved PARO as a Class II medical device.
     The Personal Robots Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab calls devices such as PARO ‘socially assistive robots’, and cuteness is key. It consulted animators when creating Tega, a ‘learning companion’ designed to work with small children. Tega is a bouncy, furry creature. But robots can be cute without resembling living entities. Jibo, which was supposed to reach customers in April, but was held back by design glitches, is certainly cute, resembling a sleek, attentive table lamp.
     “It’s not trying to be human in any way: it doesn’t have arms, it doesn’t have legs,” Cynthia Breazeal, director of MIT’s Personal Robots Group and chief scientist at Jibo, Inc., told a tech website in 2014. “It’s anthropomorphic, it’s designed to be familiar to you, but it doesn’t have to look like an animal or a real person.”
     Some day, robots might be common enough that we accept them and don’t care how they look. But right now, the baby schema does the heavy work easing robots into our lives.
     “It triggers this response in you. It’s automatic,” says Scassellati. “If we’ve done our jobs correctly, you don’t have to think how to respond.”
     For a robot, being accepted is not the only benefit of being cute. Cuteness also causes shifts in human behaviour, which cute studies researchers (read more in this Mosaic piece) are cataloguing. These help today’s primitive robots do their jobs.
     “When people respond, they speak more slowly, enunciate their words a little more clearly,” Scassellati says. “Things a robot has to process actually become easier.”
     Another benefit: people often expect robots to perform beyond their capabilities since, well, they’re robots, and making them infantile lowers those expectations. “If the robot looks and behaves as a very young creature, people will be more likely to treat it as such,” Breazeal writes in her book, Designing Sociable Robots. That means handling it gently and ­– key for the time being – not demanding too much.
     “We want to manage those expectations,” Scassellati says. “You don’t expect the cute puppy to be able to re-shelve books for you.”
     Once robots are better at what they do, and people don’t need expectations lowered, the importance of robotic cuteness might diminish. But not any time soon.
     “The cuteness factor is likely to be there quite a while,” says Scassellati.


  1. Maybe the lack of cuteness in both candidates for the presidency should be a matter of concern. Hillary Clinton looks like a hausfrau or maybe the head of the PTA in Wilmette, whereas Donald Trump radiates the inner soul of a used car salesman in Topeka, Kansas. Certainly, Barack Obama is cute, at least in the sense of being good looking. George W. Bush likewise. The other Clinton definitely attracted the babes, so I guess that counts as being cute. George H.W. Bush was "qualified," but not cute in any sense of the word that I can think of. Reagan and Carter were both cuties and knew it. Nixon was the anti-cuteness president after cuteness personified in Johnson and Kennedy. Maybe all these pictures of Hillary as a teenager are attempts to endow her with cuteness -- I hope it works.


    1. Not bad, only one mistake. That Donald is such a cutie wootie, I just want to squeeze him to death, in a trash compactor!

    2. Yes, Hillary has that extra hurdle of not looking "feminine" enough in many voters' eyes. But I'm certain if she got all glammed up and wore a figure-flattering dress, they would find fault with that as well. So she's sticking to what makes her comfortable; good for her.

      Back to the subject matter: Robotic cuteness is appealing, no question; who wouldn't love having PARO waiting for them at the end of a long hard day.


    3. Wait a second... Johnson is cuteness personified? Compared to Golda Meir maybe...

    4. Yes, I'll stand by my assertion that Lindon Johnson was cute. Not handsome of course, not JFK cute, but with his down home Sheriff Taylor accent, his outrageous faux pas, such as lifting his hound dog up by the ears and raising his shirt to show a surgical scar, his darling Lady Bird wife, all add up to "cuteness personified." I suppose the Trumpites might make a case for Donald along those lines, "Oh, isn't Donnie just precious with that goofy wall of his. And wasn't that a zinger when he invited the Russians to hack Democratic emails." If you need a good laugh (and nothing else), you know whom to vote for.


  2. I'm not sure I would give a robot dog to a Korean family.

    Robots can indeed be cute, but we should possibly remember that the word entered our language from the Czech, via Karel Kapek's 1920 play R.U.R, the conclusion of which had his Robots and Robata's taking over from humanity. More sunnily, they are what Alfred North Whitehead had in mind when he wrote "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operation we can perform without thinking of them."

    Tom Evans

    1. I can tell you from personal experience that Koreans love their dogs and hardly ever eat them, cute or not.


  3. Are you speaking as a visitor John or someone who fought in Korea as my dad did?

    1. As someone who's married to a Korean native. She will readily admit that Koreans in the exigencies of war may have eaten dogs, but denies that it is considered a delicacy by many Koreans to this day and resents the implication. She turned 15 two days before the Korean War started and remembers this period and the preceding Japanese War as times of extreme hardship.

      My comment stands: Koreans hardly ever eat their or anybody else's dogs.

  4. I wasn't questioning that at all. And I know the Chinese have been known to eat some at times as well. Your wife must have known of the horrors of Japanese atrocities against Koreans too, even in earlier days. Thanks for your reply and best wishes to you both. Just wondered if you were a vet of the Korean conflict.

    1. My uncle from Holland mentioned to me that there no cats to be found in the Netherlands after the War. He also told me that the Russians in his prison camp couldn't understand why the other prisoners were bitching about have to roll cigarettes with newspaper -- that's the way they did it at home.


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