Can We Predict How People Will Interact with Robots?

Early this year I asked you to tell us about your human-robot interactions. Now that I've collected a raft of very interesting stories about people interacting with robots in the workplace and public spaces, I can share some of my findings (which I will discuss in more detail at next quarter's IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine).

So one of the things I discovered is that we may be learning to predict how people will interact with robots: Who will treat a robot as a social being and who will treat it like a box of electronics. The answer may be as simple as whether or not the person greets the robot.

I find this particularly intriguing because when I was a pre-schooler, my mother used to scold me regularly for refusing to say "hello" to people. For some reason, I couldn't understand the social purpose of a greeting.

"But it doesn't mean anything," I would complain. The explanation that I should do it because everyone else did just didn't hold water in my four-year-old mind.

So why do we greet each other? Well, maybe way back, greetings were a means for assessing friend vs. foe. In civilized society, though, they're used more as a recognition of each other's existence, and co-consciousness, a concept rigorously defined by Philippe Rochat in his recent book "Others in Mind - Social Origins of Self-Consciousness." There, Rochat, a professor of psychology at Emory University, in Atlanta, describes the tension between people's first-person views of themselves and third-person views. Of course, third-person views are really inferred from other people's perceived reactions to you. Until we network wetware, we can only guess at how each other actually experience us.

So saying "hello" is a basic communication to validate another's existence, to "co-construct" consciousness that we both exist, or as Rochat puts it, "We think, therefore, I am."

The interplay between people and our creations in the workplace is different than that with purely social robots or with purely industrial robots. I hope you enjoy delving into "When People Meet Robots in the Workplace," to appear in the next issue of Robotics & Automation.

Jeanne Dietsch is co-founder and CEO of MobileRobots, based in Amherst, N.H.

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