Austin, Texas — When the four-legged robots walk around the campus of University of Texas at Austin, all the attention is on them. They are part of a groundbreaking science and social experiment from the school’s robotics program.
The experiment is trying to see how the programmable robots interact with nonprogrammable humans.
“The spin that we’re giving here is that we’re not so much interested in a one-to-one interaction with that particular human,” said engineer Luis Sentis. “We’re interested in the interaction with the community.”
The first assignment is to stroll through busy walkways delivering sanitizer and wipes. Soon the robots may be able to communicate by giving directions and even tours. But researchers won’t just be watching the robots.
“We’re going to watch both [humans and robots],” said social scientist Keri Stephens. “We’re more interested in the interactions and what we can learn from groups of people’s reactions when they see the robots. And then that gives us a lot of feedback with how we might need to adjust the robots to make people more comfortable around them.”
Comfort is the key word. With the help of special cameras, the study will look at every reaction the people have — from body language and facial expressions to how they walk around the machines.
“What would a robot be like on a day to day basis if you’re interacting with it every day? And that robot needs to be convenient to be around,” said computer science professor Justin Hart.
Just taking Spot, the most popular of the robots, for a stroll collects data that scientists hope will make the five-year study a success as robotics and artificial intelligence become more involved in everyday lives.
“Moving these things into the wild, I expect to make lots and lots of discoveries about how people actually accomplish things and how to make these interfaces actually work,” Hart said.
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