This Week In Bots: Will Your Kids Give Robots Civil Liberties?

Our kids may think differently about robots than we do. They may get used to hugging them, for example, and also tackle the thorny issue of “robot rights.”

robot kids


Bot Vid: Hug-A-Bot

Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, already famous for trying to broaden our emotional interactions with robots through innovations like the life-like Geminoid series, has another innovation in the spotlight now: Hugvie. It’s the sort of robot you’d get if you crossed Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop with Asimo and added a dab of Casper The Friendly Ghost…because it’s a roughly body-shaped pillow that has a heartbeat-simulating vibro unit inside. Sensitive to the tone and loudness of a caller’s voice over a cellphone connection, the simple robot modifies its tactile output to model the “mood” of the voice–thus it’s designed for huggable telepresence mood sharing. You can buy it for about $60.

Bot Vid: Your Hand Is A Runway

Micro-sized flying vehicles have all sorts of potential uses from surveillance to communications and, frankly, pure fun, but few of them demonstrate the smarts of a new ornithopter robot from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The flapping bird-like aircraft copies many aerodynamic tricks from real bird flight, and is actually capable of the complicated bunt/braking maneuver birds use when coming to land on a perch. In this case, the bot is shown landing on a human’s hand–but in terms of surveillance, it’s easy to see a bot like this swooping in on a target’s window frame to listen in to what’s said inside a room.


Bot Vid: Herb, With College-Grade Chef Skills

HERB is a robot from Carnegie Mellon University that’s capable of emulating the average culinary skills of a college student: He’s just been taught to microwave food using the same kitchen that humans use. Actually the Home Exploring Robot Butler is jam-packed with clever algorithms and sensors, and maps the world in real-time 3-D using rapidly-spinning laser scanners. HERB’s delicate, despite his solid structure, and feels his way around compliantly so he doesn’t crash into things or damage delicate objects–and the microwaving task was actually carried out using high levels of autonomous thinking. Exactly the kind of skills real, consumer-grade robots will need when working in our homes.


Bot News

Decomposing bots. Big robots, made of metal, plastic, glass and packed with sophisticated–and expensive–electronics are pretty easy to manage right now: We tend to build them, use them, then dismantle and dispose of them when needed. But what about the near future when robots, particularly micro-robots perhaps deployed in swarms, are roaming our planet? Abandoned bots harming the environment may one day be an issue, and that’s why the University of Bristol in the U.K. has earned a grant equivalent to $320,000 to research an “ecobot.” The robot would be soft-bodied and made of soft plant-derived materials so that when it gets to the end of its life it would simply and safely decompose–perhaps after helping clean up an oil spill.

Navigation for the blind. Robot vision systems are getting ever more sophisticated, as a video we shared recently helps to demonstrate, but it’s being suggested that all these leaps in robotic machine vision could also help blind people to navigate their way around. Researchers at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris are using a head-mounted camera and sensor system, more commonly found on robots, in combination with a handheld Braille device to help the blind navigate. The sensor suite generates a dynamic 3-D map of the environs of the wearer, and then communicates it on the Braille pad–with the ultimate goal of enabling autonomous movements by blind users.

Ocean research robots. The same type of Liquid Robotics Wave Glider robots that are currently swimming their way autonomously across the world’s oceans using wave power are now being deployed in the Gulf of Maine for very specific scientific purposes. A unit’s been launched this week that’ll swim in the Maine waters for between six and eight weeks as a test run. It’s tasked with collecting data on the ocean’s condition and will track salmon, sturgeon, and other fish that have been pre-tagged with acoustic beacons.

Bot Futures: Our children’s robo-friendships

Do you think advances in robotics are impressive, with just a hint of scary? We’re betting you definitely have a mix of emotions when you read about some of the robot innovations we report here…but here’s a different idea for you to ponder: Your kids may think, and feel, entirely differently about robots than you do.


Similar to other recent research about (grown-up) humans attributing moral values to robotic actions, the University of Washington’s Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems Lab has also been studying how children react emotionally to robots. In fact, they tested if children formed emotional bonds with robots to the point that they’d react if they perceived a robot was being maltreated.

As reported by the Automaton blog, the experiments were carefully controlled to create a part-educational, part friendly scenario with 90 child volunteers–with a (remotely operated) Robovie unit interacting with the child, leading it to a fish tank, chatting about the fish, then playing an I-Spy-like game and then asking for a hug. In a subsequent game of I-Spy, an adult interrupted and removed the robot to a closet.

The child was then interviewed about the session, including questions on how they felt about the robot and its treatment. The answers may surprise you.

Over 80% of the kids thought the robot was intelligent and 60% thought it had feelings (no doubt picking up on the human operator’s input here as the robot was just a “puppet” in the scenario). 50% of the subjects thought it not right that the robot was pushed into a closet, and 90% said it wasn’t fair and he should’ve been allowed to finish the game. But at the same time over 80% of the kids also thought it would be perfectly acceptable to buy or sell the robot…despite its apparent status as an intelligent, emotional entity.


Chalk this up as another example of kids having a practical viewpoint on life that’s markedly different to us as grown-ups (perhaps because they’ve yet to be aware of the indirect consequences of actions). That’s why they were happy to deny the robot civil rights, but thought it unfair that he wasn’t treated well. But it serves as a reminder that our kids and their children will be growing up with ever more robots in their lives, and they may well think differently about this state of affairs than we do. In addition to the sex talk, the race talk, the gender talk and so on, will we have to sit down with our youngsters in a few years’ time and give them the “robot rights” talk?

[Image: Flickr user jepoirrier]

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


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)