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Apr 9, 2012Science and Technology
Future of robots as social beings

Honda's physically anthropomorphic ASIMO robot can recognize moving objects, postures, gestures, its surrounding environment, sounds and faces, which enables it to interact with humans and move fluidly

One of the things about new technologies is that although they may be difficult for an older generation to understand and use properly, those who’ve grown up with the technology tend to adapt to it more naturally.

Social changes occur in the same manner. For example, for a younger generation, the idea that only white males were allowed to vote in the United States at one time seems almost impossible to believe.

So, with a technology like robotics -- something that’s designed to provide services, simplify lives and perform natural interactions -- it’s probably not a surprise to see a study that shows that younger people tend to think about robots in a vastly different manner than older people.

A study from the University of Washington shows that children tend to be much more willing to interact socially with a humanoid robot than someone who’s of an older generation. During the study, the researchers placed the robot in social situations in which a child might find himself or herself, and then the children were asked whether the robot was being treated fairly by the adults. More than half of the children stood up for the robot’s “feelings,” almost treating it as if it were human. During the study, the children also tended to naturally make small talk with a humanoid robot and provide hugs, something that adults were much more leery about doing.

These results occur in part because children are growing up around different types of technology in which they’re able to interact using speech and gestures. This is vastly different from the way that most adults have grown up and interacted with technology. For the past couple of decades, personal computers have been the most common means of technology for people to use. These devices have had one primary way to interact with them, through a mouse and a keyboard.

Now, though, you see smartphones that use speech recognition technology, such as Siri with the Apple iPhone. Children play video games, such as the Wii and the Kinect 360, by making gestures at the screen, rather than only using a static controller. All of these things make it easier for children to interact in a more natural social manner with various aspects of technology, such as robots.

This should make high-tech companies more interested in creating technologies that will be more interactive in the future. As the current generation of children grows into adulthood, they’re going to demand technologies that are easier to work with and that are socially interactive, and high-tech companies will be forced to meet those demands with products that work well.

TOPIO ("TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot") is a bipedal humanoid robot designed to play table tennis against a human beingHowever, it will be a significant challenge for companies looking to meet these changing demands in the future. Not only will the robots down the road need to work in a natural manner from the standpoint of the way that they move physically, but they’re also going to need to have better artificial intelligence software built for them that will make discussions more natural. There will need to be major improvements made in the types of hardware and software that are currently out there to meet these demands.

Certainly, today’s robots have far more potential to reach those goals, thanks to the continued efforts of researchers. Things that are commonplace today, such as the interactive Wii game controller, weren’t close to possible about a decade ago, but technological improvements have changed the way we can work with technology. Couple those technological improvements with the way that today’s children see robots, and you’re going to have the potential for some amazing advancements in the world of robotics in the not too distant future.

However, those advancements must be done in the right way. Having a robot that can provide a few timely phrases and that can simulate social interaction may impress children today, but it likely won’t be enough when they’re adults in another decade. Today’s children are going to demand more.

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