UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar.
Teaching Manners to House Robots
Engineering prof. working on a more polite robot for the
By Michelle Cook
Blame it on Rosie, the Jetsons robot maid. The popular
TV cartoon character helped to fuel our fascination with having
automated help around the house but, in real life, Rosie would
be too dangerous to let loose with the vacuum cleaner, says
a UBC robotics expert.
Robots are used extensively in industry but they havent
made the leap into everyday life because functions like vacuuming
and loading a dishwasher require robotic arms and these can
literally get in your face and injure you, says Elizabeth
Croft, an associate professor in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering
and member of UBCs Institute of Computing, Information
& Cognitive Systems.
Safety is the main reason why we have yet to bond with robots
in the way envisioned on The Jetsons TV series. Its
a problem that Croft hopes to solve by designing machines
that are more polite.
We talk all the time about bringing robots into our
environment but the fundamental questions of safety havent
been answered, Croft says. Theres been a
lot of work done on human-machine interaction but its
mainly been with computers or passive devices and not with
There are lots of potential applications for well-mannered
robots, Croft says with a smile. They can be put to work in
offices, helping people with spinal cord injuries to perform
routine office functions. In labs, they can help researchers
to conduct experiments with toxic substances; and in the home,
they can assist the elderly and disabled with feeding themselves
and other daily living tasks.
Before robots can be taken off the factory floor and put
into settings where people can work more closely with them,
there has to be some proof that they can consistently behave
in a safe way. This is the focus of Crofts current research.
Current industry standards limit human-robot interaction
by requiring physical barriers like big yellow lines to be
put around a robots workplace, and safety interlock
circuits that shut the robot down if someone enters its space.
As a result, industrial robots arent very well mannered.
Weve got to get from the zero interaction that
is prescribed now to the point where a robot is aware that
there is a person in its space, Croft says.
Croft and her researchers are working to improve the design
of robots to get them to move in ways that are less likely
to hurt people. They are also looking at how to program robots
with a set of guidelines, similar to the human rules of etiquette,
to help them anticipate how a person in their space is going
To do this, the team of mechanical engineers has had to learn
a little more about human behaviour.
People are unpredictable and react in different ways,
says Dana Kulic, one of Crofts PhD students. Determining
which responses are appropriate in terms of designing human-robot
interaction control is a challenge.
The team has been monitoring how people interact with a robot
by monitoring visual clues like body position and eye gaze,
and physiological signals like heart rate, skin conductance
and muscle contractions. The information is combined to provide
an estimate of the persons intentions, and data can
then be used to control the robot to adjust to how that person
will interact with it.
Just like we learn about the people we meet, a robot
has to learn about each new person it comes into contact with,
and with information we collect, we can provide the robot
with a kind of user profile, Kulic says.
Croft hopes the work she and her researchers are doing will
lead to the establishment of safety standards for human-robot
interaction. But that doesnt mean Rosie will be vacuuming
your house any time soon.
The question of whether you have a robot in your home
will be an economic one. Its difficult to predict how
expensive they will be, Croft says. Theres
also the question of whether people will accept robots in
their homes; thats an issue of convenience over the
need for human interaction.