Tags: uncanny valley | pratfall effect | robots | robotics | technology

Are Clumsy Robots More Likeable? Study Suggests 'Yes'

Are Clumsy Robots More Likeable? Study Suggests 'Yes'
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Wednesday, 09 August 2017 01:23 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The uncanny valley is a hypothetical problem in AI and robotics that has persisted since 1970s-era speculations about how human-robot interactions could play out. New research suggests that one possible way to make machines more likable and relatable — climbing out of the valley, so to speak — is to make them clumsy and capable of error. But would that simply introduce more problems?

Now that we’re starting to create realistic conversational (and sometimes physical) interfaces with machines, it’s becoming more important to study and address this potential problem — both for the sake of increasing user adoption and to advance robotics faster and with fewer ethical dilemmas.

The Uncanny Valley

In case you aren’t familiar, the uncanny valley is a description for a phenomenon in which an object (such as a doll, toy, or this case, a robot) is associated with positive feelings when it bears no resemblance to human beings. Positive feelings sag down and become negative feelings as the object in question begins to look similar to a human — but with key, “uncanny” differences that trigger reactions of disgust or discomfort.

The best way to understand uncanny valley is to look at examples of robots that attempt to look human and fail. The uncanny valley hypothesis claims it’s better to look nothing like a human than only somewhat like a human, and is a problem for the AI and robotics community because one of their primary goals is to achieve consistently positive interactions between human beings and machines.

The uncanny valley is frequently discussed and occasionally studied, but there’s still much we don’t understand about how it works or what, specifically, is triggering those feelings of revulsion that seem so common in the general population.

The Study

The latest research, published in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, presented test subjects with interactions with one of two different robots. One of them was programmed to communicate and interact flawlessly, while the other was intentionally programmed with certain behavioral flaws. Researchers observed the human test subjects after mistakes were made to gauge their reactions, and followed up with both groups to evaluate how they felt about the robots.

Among other variables, they asked participants about the robot’s likability, anthropomorphism and perceived intelligence. Overall, the group with the flawed robot found the robot to be more likable and human-like, and responded to it more positively.

Researchers document this as an example of the so-called “pratfall effect,” as applied to robotics, which states that people who make mistakes, are clumsy, or otherwise openly display imperfections are more likable than people who don’t.

Problems and Solutions

The new study presents one strong solution to the uncanny valley problem; intentionally imbuing robots and AI programs with errors, flaws, and mistakes to make them seem more realistic. After all, no human beings act perfectly, and if they seem to act perfectly, they’re less likable.

There are a few significant problems with this approach. First, intentionally making robots clumsy or accident-prone could make them inferior for applications like home-based medical treatment or surgery.

Second, it would be a difficult task to evaluate what qualifies as a “likeable” flaw and what doesn’t, and to determine the best way to apply those flaws to an otherwise functional machine. Still, the study marks an important step forward in advancing the relationship between AI and human beings.

Once we understand the nuances of imperfections in positive interactions, we’ll be one step closer to emerging from the uncanny valley.

Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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The best way to understand uncanny valley is to look at examples of robots that attempt to look human and fail.
uncanny valley, pratfall effect, robots, robotics, technology
Wednesday, 09 August 2017 01:23 PM
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