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Should Robots Look Like People or Machines?
2/1/2012

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Heather Knight, a roboticist and founder of Marilyn Monrobots, is trying to bridge the uncanny valley by adding humor to the robotic repertoire. Her robot, Data, can do imitations of Darth Vader, R2D2, and Buzz Lightyear.  (Source: Freescale Semiconductor)
Heather Knight, a roboticist and founder of Marilyn Monrobots, is trying to bridge the uncanny valley by adding humor to the robotic repertoire. Her robot, Data, can do imitations of Darth Vader, R2D2, and Buzz Lightyear.
(Source: Freescale Semiconductor)

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Beth Stackpole
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Robots should look like people AND machines
Beth Stackpole   2/1/2012 7:22:16 AM
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Definitely an interesting question, Alex, and one I'm sure you'll get plenty of feedback on. I agree with the sentiment expressed in your post that people are essentially human programming machines, thus more likely to mimic their own behaviors and patterns in the robots they design especially as those robots get more sophisticated.

Still,  I think there's got to be a place for both kinds. For industrial applications deep in the factory or in out in space, for example, there's no reason why a robot should exhibit any ressemblance to humans. However, for applications where there is heavy human interaction, then it's probably quite comforting and even more productive to deal with a machine that has human-like traits as part of enhancing the collaboration experience.

williamlweaver
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Re: Robots should look like people AND machines
williamlweaver   2/1/2012 8:02:45 AM
Humans are genetically programmed to see faces...the kind of faces hiding in the bushes that are friendly, spying, about to attack, or have a mouthful of sharp fangs that wish to devour you. Since we see faces in just about everything anyway, why not design a face or humanoid style into the product on purpose. At least that will allow the designers to control the "happy" or "aggressive" perception that users get when they see their product. Rather than, for example, purchasing an automatic rocking chair that just happens to look like a hungry tarantula...

Dave Palmer
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Biomimetics
Dave Palmer   2/1/2012 10:03:03 AM
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I don't have a strong opinion on the aesthetic, psychological, or cultural implications of humanoid robots.  But there are practical reasons for employing aspects of human form and function (as well as the form and function of other living things) in robot design -- and engineering design in general.

Over a timescale of billions of years, living things have evolved all kinds of interesting solutions to mechanical problems, such as locomotion, which I strongly doubt any engineer would be intelligent or creative enough to come up with on his or her own.  Living things also give us examples of self-assembling, nanostructured, multifunctional materials, such as bone or spider silk, which rival any of our current industrial materials.  That's not to mention sensing methods, self-organization, etc., all of which have been perfected by living organisms.

When I look back on my education, one thing which I really regret is the fact that I never took a single biology class after my freshman year of high school.  I'm trying to remedy that now, with an MIT biology class which is freely available on OpenCourseWare.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Biomimetics
Rob Spiegel   2/1/2012 10:52:09 AM
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I agree, Dave. Robots may mimic human actions or the actions of other living things. The most successful use of robots so far seem to be in the automated production of goods. These robots mimic hand and arm motions somewhat, but that's coincidental. Ultimately, robots will be successful as they reduce costs, improve performance, or perform in areas humans can't reach, such as in space or toxic environments. 

Jon Titus
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It All Depends on What You Want to Do
Jon Titus   2/1/2012 1:21:10 PM
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Mention "robot" and many people think of something from "Star Wars" or "The Day the Earth Stood Still."  Perhaps it's better to think about automation.  When people wanted to create an automated piano they didn't create a mechanical "humanoid" to press the keys and replace the human player. Instead they used a roll of paper punched with holes to control the keys.  Automation in Detroit took a different approach--human-like robotic arms that sprayed paint and welded metal.  You design the automation to fit the task.  If I want an aquatic robot that can swim quickly, it will look like a porpoise and not like a human or a movie-prop "robot."

Many people might feel comfortable around human-like robots, but they all look a bit creepy to me.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: It All Depends on What You Want to Do
Rob Spiegel   2/1/2012 3:22:07 PM
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I agree Jon. Your porpoise analogy is a good example. Automation is a good name for it. A good portion of consumer goods are effectively made by robots, since the automated line is really a robot. The preference consumers have for the automated teller machines is proof that we don't need to dress up our automation to look like people.

JPW
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Silver
LOL - dress my dog
JPW   2/1/2012 3:36:49 PM
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All the following in jest not to offend RoboCop:

The Japanese affinity for making robots look human is as humorous as those who feel Sheedzu's (spelling), a dog bred in Tibet quite capable of handling cold, need to be clothed. Isn't it funny that people want to make things that they love like people; I think it is a reflection upon the lack of such love between people. However, it does put a smile on my face to see such silly things, even if they're not intended to be silly.

I was also pleasantly surprised the other day, being an avid Battlestar Galactica fan (2000's, not 1970's), while listening to my favorite radio station, Science360, on inTune radio app. Apparently the AI wizards of IBM have discovered to their chagrin that when they try to make AI think like us with networking "brain" like us they discover they can no longer program their machine; it has to learn its task, just like any other inferior non-silicon based lifeform. LOL. Of course a DNA based computer like those in BG could be a game changer.

On a final light note. A dog is a dog, not a human. A robot is a robot, not a human. Can't we embrace the fact that they are different from us, instead of trying to make them be like us. :)

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Robots should look like people AND machines
Alexander Wolfe   2/1/2012 4:07:47 PM
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That's a great point, Bill. Although I "knew" it, I realize now that I've never really thought about that explicitly. But it's correct and I'd add to it that I've always thought everyone has a facial recognition program embedded in their brain as an instinctual function. I.e., it's like real-time software in that whenever one sees a new face (human or animal), this program performs the "friend or foe" analysis. That's what early man had to figure out for survival. I guess by extension we recognize robots as robots by perceiving the lack of movement/life in the faces of those humanoid machines. Conceivably, manufacturers could play with like/dislike by altering the characteristics (faces) of those robots.

Charles Murray
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Beyond function
Charles Murray   2/1/2012 7:10:02 PM
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If you ask a bunch of engineers, as we are doing here, the the answer will almost always be "form follows function." Or, in some cases, "We don't need no stinking form." But for those who were in the room when Heather Knight unveiled her robot, named Data, the answer might be different. When Data talked, the room of 2,000 engineers was transfixed. Clearly, there was a different level of acceptance for Data than if it had looked like a McDonald's fryer robot. So my answer is, robots might benefit from a more human appearance in certain situations, even when function doesn't obviously dictate it.

vimalkumarp
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Should Robots Look Like People or Machines?
vimalkumarp   2/2/2012 12:56:25 AM
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This is really a nice thought provoking article. I think the appearance of the robot should be related to the function that it serves. If the robot is meant for the care of elderly people then it must have a human form rather than the machine form. But it will be better to have a machine form for a robot that does spot welding in the car assembly line. My points may be too primitive but I feel that this way "Frankenstein" problem in appearance can be tackled to some extent. But in any case this is a real tough problem for the engineers...!

 

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