Have you ever suspected that your Roomba is alive? You are not alone. New research confirms that people can tell what kind of personality a robot vacuum has, just by the way it moves. Even better, people correctly guessed which of Snow White’s Seven Dwarves the robot was mimicking. And that’s the kind of delightful finding that makes me happy.
It’s nothing new for people to fall in love with their robot vacuum. There’s your coworker, who shares stories of the cute things their Roomba did last night. Or the beloved DJ Roomba episodes on Parks and Recreation. Even twitter is peppered with entertaining moments in human robot vacuum relationships.
All of those Roomba owners seem a little crazy, until you get your own. Suddenly you too are convinced that the little disc shaped robot who lives off dirt has a relationship with you. You are not imagining things; scientists agree with you.
Robot vacuum research
Robot vacuum research is nothing new, and neither is research into human robot relations. Researchers want to know how humans relate to robots, especially when it comes to what makes us trust them. You read that correctly: a huge goal in robot development is to build trust with people.
In the past, research has shown that people who are lonely can relate to their Roomba like a friend, especially if it looks like it’s smiling. And people’s sense of connection with robots may be intensified by high pressure situations. In another study, highly trained soldiers who worked with robots to disarm bombs appeared to form an emotional attachment. The soldiers knew it was a tool, but still interacted with it more like a pet. If a robot became disabled, they might say, ‘poor little guy,’ or even have a funeral for it.
Robot vacuums with personalities.
In a new study, researchers wanted to know how people perceived the movement patterns of robot vacuums. That’s because the way someone moves tells us a lot about their mood.
The team used an ‘expressive autonomous motion generation system’ to program Neato Botvacs with movement patterns. Using path shape, acceleration, and movement toward or away from people, the robots imitated three of the Seven Dwarves.
According to Heather Knight, assistant professor of computer science at Oregon State University, “The Happy robot sought people out with smooth motions at moderate speed. The Sleepy robot also sought people out, but with delays and slower accelerations. The Grumpy robot avoided people while using erratic motions and a range of velocities. Those simple variations told the people a lot.”
Study participants were indeed able to correctly identify whether the robot vacuums was Happy, Grumpy or Sleepy, just based on their movement. They also rated their politeness, friendliness and intelligence. Participants found Grumpy impolite and unfriendly, while they rated Happy as friendly and intelligent.
If it moves, we ask if it’s alive.
Our brain developed patterns of recognition in a world where most of what moved was alive. We learned that other creatures’ movement revealed their intentions. When we react to a robot, we are providing a window into how our own minds developed.
But also, these little guys are just fun. If one of the key factors in our happiness is whether we have regular opportunities for fun, then maybe we should all think about getting a Roomba.
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