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Research Story

Friending Machines

By Chris Rutkowski

Not that long ago, robots were simply concepts in science fiction novels. But today, robots manufacture cars on assembly lines and drive those cars on highways. They defuse bombs, pilot aircraft and vacuum our carpets. And soon they will be a regular part of our everyday lives.

James Young is an assistant professor of computer science in the Faculty of Science, with a specialty in human-robot interaction. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on how people perceive and work with robots. He’s studying how companies can introduce robots into our work environments and how they can be better integrated into our homes. In short, Young suggests that to be effective, robots have to be more like us.

UM Today What kind of social skills do robots need to effectively work with humans?
James Young There are certain social cues we use to make sure we are understood—getting confirmation, recognition of intent and affirmation. We do these things naturally, but robots have to be taught to do them. Robots that have those social skills will be more effective at working with humans.

UM Today Is this ‘humanization’ of robots a good thing?
Young Having empathy for robots is certainly an issue. There have been instances in military situations where robots designed to check for bombs or mines have been damaged or destroyed, and the soldiers operating them have been very upset. So, giving robots humanlike elements such as eyes and a humanoid body helps in improving social interactions with humans, but if the robot is too lifelike, it might interfere with employing it in a dangerous situation. We throw out machines like PCs and old iPhones pretty easily, but a robot….

UM Today Would you feel comfortable taking orders from a robot?
Young I have no idea. That’s a big challenge in human-robot interaction. If a robot decides on an action for us, will we obey? People recognize that a machine has advanced knowledge and skills, but at the same time we regard it as ‘just a stupid machine.’ Moving forward, we need to interact with robots as co-workers, not just tools or machines.

UM Today Are you, personally, ready to accept your robot overlords?
Young If they clean my bathroom and scoop the cat litter box, sure!


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