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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2003

Teaching Manners to House Robots

Engineering prof. working on a more polite robot for the future

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 haven’t 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 UBC’s 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. It’s 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 haven’t been answered,” Croft says. “There’s been a lot of work done on human-machine interaction but it’s mainly been with computers or passive devices and not with robotic arms.”

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 Croft’s current research.

Current industry standards limit human-robot interaction by requiring physical barriers like big yellow lines to be put around a robot’s workplace, and safety interlock circuits that shut the robot down if someone enters its space. As a result, industrial robots aren’t very well mannered.

“We’ve 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 act.

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 Croft’s 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 person’s 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 doesn’t 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. It’s difficult to predict how expensive they will be,” Croft says. “There’s also the question of whether people will accept robots in their homes; that’s an issue of convenience over the need for human interaction.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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