Ask The Right Question

As we get closer to having robots working with us in our everyday existence, that is, away from a production line automation situation, but in the home or the medical environment, we will have to communicate with them.

One possibility is to have a driver or better, a robot supervisor with them. But that is firstly expensive and would rule them out for most applications, and, secondly, would make the robot redundant as the person could, in many cases, perform the function that the robot would be called upon to carry out.

The consequence is that a person will have to interact with their robot without being an engineer. This means that the robot will have to ask for help and be given the information to help it do its job.

This is clearly a non-trivial problem. The parameters for success have been set out in a recent paper by Rosenthal et al in the current edition of Social Robotics (1). The team took two extant robots and with different test protocols then persuaded 48 residents of Pittsburgh to work with the robots.

The first robot, RoboSapien V2, was set to watching participants building structures out of children’s building blocks. The robot was there to record the color and shapes of the blocks used at each stage, and was allowed to ask for help with identification.

The second robot was tasked with leading the participants through a building and could enquire if it needed help with locating a particular room.

In both experiments, the participants were on time-limited tasks and could choose to ignore the robot if they wished. In fact, they tended to be more sympathetic, so took more care in answering, if the robots expressed uncertainty. The robots, though, did have to be careful with their wording and put the question in context to get a correct answer.

An interesting result was that the participants didn’t seem to be aware when the robots were uncertain although they did respond more readily. It appears that people like to be helpful, even to robots and don’t take very much trouble when asked seemingly irrelevant questions.

  1. S.Rosenthal, M.Veloso & A.K. Dey, Int, J. Soc. Robot, (2012), doi: 10.1007/s12369-012-0138-y

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