How To Give Robot Vacuums a Personality (And Why It Matters)

You may or may not attribute a personality to your Roomba, but researchers are trying to figure out how to give it one for real

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

How To Give Robot Vacuums a Personality (And Why It Matters)

It's surprisingly easy for humans to endow robots with personalities. We've seen it happen most poignantly with EOD robots, but it's a common occurrence for people with domestic robots as well. However, these robots were never designed to have personalities. They're designed to do a job, and they're designed to be able to interact with people to the extent that it facilitates their ability to do that job, but service robots are really not programmed to be your pet, your best friend, or a member of your family.

Whether it's in their programming or not is, to some extent, beside the point, since it happens anyway. And when it happens, it dramatically changes the way that people interact with what on a primary level is intended to be little more than a tool. Realizing this, a team from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research in the Netherlands decided to take a look at how people actually want their robot vacuums to behave, and what kinds of personalities they'd like them to display.

To do this, the researchers used what's called the Five Factor Model to describe a set of thirty hypothetical personality traits to a group of study participants. The aforementioned Five Factors are broadly described as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, and each one of these categories can be subdivided into more specific characteristics like "calm," "talkative," "likes routines," "bold," and "systematic." Each participant was asked to rate how important these characteristics were, and the results were incorporated into a sort of hypothetical "desirable" personality for a robot vacuum.

The next step was to take those desirable personality characteristics and turn them into robot behaviors, and this is where it starts to get a little, uh, strange:

"The translation from personality to behavior was inspired by a role play in which a group of actors was asked to act like a robot vacuum cleaner with these desired characteristics. Attributes, such as macaroni, were available to support acting out some of the situations (e.g. ‘cleaning a dirty spot’). An introductory exercise was meant to familiarize the actors with the personality. Then, the actors were asked to act out situations—as if they were the robot vacuum cleaner—making use of motion and sound (expression through light was taken into consideration only after this exercise). In general, the actors either crawled about or walked around at a slow pace to imitate a vacuum cleaner. Often, a typical vacuuming sound was simulated by them."

I'm sure it's impossible to imagine how hilarious that must have been. And I absolutely asked the researchers for the video but they won't give it to me, I imagine because it would ruin the careers of any of those (I would have to assume aspiring) actors. Sad.

Anyway, they took all of those performances and used them to create their own "prototype" video of a hypothetical vacuum cleaner exhibiting some of the personality traits displayed by the actors. The word "prototype" is in quotes because this is just a little remote control vacuumy-looking thing with the sound dubbed in, but watch the video and see what you think about the personality of this little guy:

A panel of fifteen people were asked what they thought about the prototype, and they were able to successfully describe those personality characteristics that were originally instilled into the prototype, suggesting that it's definitely possible to give household robots personalities, even if they don't have any expressive features beyond movement, sound, and a few blinking lights.

It's not just that it's possible to do create a robot with a personality, but what's relevant is it actually makes a difference to the end user. This is a more important point than you might think; by way of example, consider the difference between the iRobot Roomba and the Neato XV-11. Which one of these vacuums cleans better is certainly up for debate (and we've debated it), but as we've pointed out in the past, iRobot has a perception problem with their pseudo-random method of cleaning versus the Neato's straight line technique. The XV-11 just seems smarter to people, whether or not it actually does a better job, and that makes a difference when people are deciding what vacuum they want to buy.

There's lots of nifty graphs and charts and stuff in the actual paper, which is entitled "Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior," by Bram Hendriks, Bernt Meerbeek, Stella Boess, Steffen Pauws, and Marieke Sonneveld from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research. You can read it in its entirety at the link below.

[ Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior ] via [ Improbable Research ]

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