Humans & Robophobia

In the news recently, there has been a lot of coverage towards more ‘human’ looking robots that are becoming ever more advanced and capable.

What this brings is a hope amongst the scientific community that we draw closer to a positive coexistence, that will potentially enable the quicker integration of such robots into our society.

However, there are aspects of human nature that are causing that process to consider a theory that was coined by a Japanese professor in the 1970s. Robotics professor Masahiro Mori led pioneering work on the emotional response of humans to non-human entities. His theory, known as ‘the uncanny valley’, is the idea that when robots resemble humans but not quite, it can create eeriness and revulsion in people. This leads to some robots being seen as cute and endearing, such as Honda’s ASMIO, but others as being too disturbingly close to humans.

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Honda’s ASIMO, created in 2000 | Image Credit: Youtube

The work by a team of scientists at the University of Edinburgh, strives to overcome ‘the uncanny valley’. Working in collaboration with NASA’s Valkyrie programme, they are working to create biped robots that can move like humans in the hope that they can be used to help human astronauts exploring Mars.

A single Valkyrie unit costs a cool £1.8 million pounds, weighs in a 125kg and stands at five foot 11 inches tall.Valkyrie’s on-board vision systems and bipedal locomotion, responds to simulated cramped and difficult-to-navigate surfaces to mimic the capsule and space walks a future generation robot might encounter one day.

Researchers from Edinburgh Centre for Robotics and Valkyrie | Image Credit: University of Edinburgh

Whilst there is an ongoing debate over creating robots in the image of humans, there are scientific advantages to doing this. Professor Sethu Vijayakumar who is part of the team at Edinburgh University, states the practical benefits of a more human looking robot:

“Bipeds are very good at moving in the same space that is designed for humans.
“We are very good at squeezing through narrow spaces, climbing steps and tackling variable footholds.
If you have a robot with wheels or is a quadruped then you have to redesign the entire space for the robot.”

On the other hand, in terms of further integration wih humans, an argument can be made that it is not how the robots looks that matters but more about how it behavies.

Dr Mary Ellen Foster of Glasgow University, works closely with robots and studies human-robot interaction as well as social robotics. Her current work involves the integration of robots into our every day lives. Since March 2016, she has been coordinating the MuMMER project which aims to develop a socially intelligent humanoid robot that is able to operate in a public shopping centre.

Dr Foster feels that’s making robots look like us ‘is not the way to go’ moving forwards.

“They need to be able engage in social interactions, their understanding of cues and gestures is more important towards human-robot interaction and building sustainable personable relationships with us.”

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