This Week In Bots: The Naked And The Droid

Bot Vid: The Roshambo Cheat

Rock-paper-scissors--or roshambo, if you prefer--may be a game humans find hard to cheat at, but a robot from the Ishikawa Oku lab at the University of Tokyo (shown on the Automaton blog) has got it down to a science. It observes the muscle movements of its feeble human opponents with milliseconds of the game beginning, accurately deducing their intended gesture and then rapidly selects the winning move. Silly, annoying, clever...and incredibly important for the future of human-robot interactions, where robots may need to react to unpredictable human moves for safety or security reasons.

Bot Vid: Quadrocopters Dance At Cannes

Quadrocopters are getting ever more impressive, and their precision flying (researched for all sorts of academic, search and rescue and military purposes) is always a joy to watch. Which is something Saatchi & Saatchi used to wow the audience, putting on a quadrocopter dance son et lumiere at its New Directors' Showcase at Cannes.

Bot Vid: Shimi The Dancing Smartphone Pal

Shimi is a product of work at Georgia Tech's Center for Music Technology, and you're going to want one. It's an interactive music companion bot, powered via specialized apps on a connected Android phone. Essentially Shimi is a smart, reactive DJ that can do tricks like listen to its owners' claps and pick the closest-matching track from their music library to play aloud. While dancing. It can even track its owner's position around the room, pointing its speaker-equipped head in the right direction, and soon it'll be able to detect waves or head shakes to understand a "skip this track" command from people. He's a demonstration of how robots can penetrate even into surprising corners of modern life.

Bot News

Berlin's Bee Bots. A scientist at Berlin's Free University is busy trying to build Project RoboBee--an attempt to "hack" into how bees think by building a robot replica clever enough to interact with real ones. The idea is to emulate a bee dance, used to communicate in the hive, and entice real bees out into the world and to a food source. It's mainly an attempt to prove the theory about bee dances, and also showcases clever robot tech, in this case the meter-high package that's needed to drive the tiny foam and plastic RoboBee in a sensitive and realistic way.

U.S. Army Buys Mini-bots. The U.S. Army is about to get even more robotized than it already is, albeit on a small-ish scale: It's just awarded a $13.9 million contract to ReconRobotics for 1,000 tiny "throwable" robots. The drones are useful for helping fire teams with tactical reconnaissance data in complicated, dynamic combat environments...such as house-to-house fighting. 

Survey: U.S. Citizens Have Mixed Feelings About Drones. A new poll by Monmouth University, reported in Automaton, notes that U.S. citizens are not enthusiastic about the use of drones for domestic law enforcement. While 67% of those surveyed said they supported drone use to catch runaway criminals, and 80% for search and rescue, 67% opposed the idea of speeding ticket drones. And 64% were somewhat or very concerned that U.S. law enforces would threaten their privacy if they started using camera drones.

Bot Futures: Would You Let A Robot See You Nude?

We've written a lot about how more and more robots are coming to help us with our daily lives, and that soon the kind of robot you have in your home will far surpass your average Roomba--with genuine smarts, conversational power, and sophisticated gripping fingers suited for tasks like cooking, handling dishes or folding clothes.

But a study by Dr. Christoph Bartneck at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has highlighted that when designing butler or maid robots for helping in the home, robot makers may need to pay attention to how robots look and behave...for a surprising reason. Because it's a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects (think about the strong emotional bond you once had with cuddly toys) people may actually be embarrassed in front of a robot. Particularly so if it looks human-like, as an android, or demonstrates qualities of being "somewhat alive" through conversation or other non-vocal gestures. We tend to react to them the same way we would a person we don't know.

Which leads to one important question: If a many-next-gen Siri AI from Apple was embodied in a maid android in your home, responding to your queries and even cracking jokes...would you feel comfortable taking your clothes off in front of it?

It may, at first blush, seem like a frivolous question, but it gets at a subtlety that's absolutely key to a near future where robots are helping the sick and elderly in hospitals or even in their homes. It's all about how a human-ish robot triggers some of our deep emotional responses when they're being a "social actor" in a more personal environment--we'd certainly feel quite differently about seeing a droid in more industrial, less intimate environment.

The upshot is that when designing robots that work in personal human spaces, we may have to go above and beyond merely making them "safe" and giving them compliant limbs so they ease out of the way if we accidentally bump into them, and actually make them "behave" in socially accepted ways (which, granted, is more than we can hope for certain humans.) And, curiously, this could even affect how we design military robots, as soldiers may be more reluctant to "kill" a droid that seems human.

[Main Image: Alex Brown; Image: Flickr user gordontarpley ]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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