Robots can clean your house, turn on your favourite music and light your living room. Soon they might even be folding your laundry. And this is only the beginning. The question is no longer if robotic assistants will be part of our lives, but how we envision our coexistence.  The time has come when humans are ready to entrust robots with complex tasks, so naturally the expectation of what robots can and can’t achieve is growing. Leila Takayama, Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz, is preparing us for a future where human-robot interactions will become commonplace.


“When you stick someone in a room with a robot you will see: you cannot help but to interact with it. Somehow we are feeling that those things are alive even though we rationally know that they are not”, explains Leila. One reason for that might lie deep in our thinking: We only have one social brain and it stays the same, whether we’re dealing with a person or a machine, says Clifford Nas, Professor at Stanford University.


Can we learn something about ourselves from interacting with robots?
The PR2 is not as tall as Leila. He has a flat head and wide eyes. And apparently he looks like a person to most of us. Originally, Leila is a cognitive and social scientist and has more to do with humans than with robots. Now she is focusing on human-robot-interaction. “There is a new space opening up when robots and humans live together and interaction is key in it.” In this space we are able to learn something about ourselves and our expectations of our future robotic assistants. And apparently we have a whole lot of expectations: The Western view on robots is mainly shaped by movies and other media representations of them.

PR2 looks very friendly to most of us.
A tall robot will maybe remind us of the Terminator, so we think it might be smart, scary and violent. A long and egg-shaped head and we will probably think this robot is very smart. And if it looks like Wall-E from the 2008 Pixar movie or like Leila’s PR2 we will most probably think that it is a positive dude, very friendly and still quite smart.

According to Leila these expectations can be misleading. One reason: Robots are not smart in the way we understand it. They are also not always able to navigate in our personal space even though we expect them to do so. The robot has to calculate its route and we might represent an obstacle that he has to find its way around. Leila is trying to incorporate this knowledge about human-robot interaction into the design of robots: “We don’t need to want to hug it, but we also don’t want people to run the other way.”


“Let’s invent the future that we actually want to live in.”
At the robotics company Willow Garage Leila and her colleagues put together a “moving co-worker” that could transport a person to and through the office without them actually being there. “Imagine Skype on a stick on wheels”, Leila explains in her Ted Talk in 2017. For the perception of the person talking on screen it mattered whether the robot was taller or shorter: If the screen was on a taller stick the person would be perceived as more persuasive and more credible than a shorter one. “And that makes no rational sense,” Leila adds.

People are different – they vary by personality, culture, also by mood. On the other hand, it is important to create an understanding for machines as well: By making robotic “thought” processes and missteps visible to their human counterparts. Leila Takayama is working on creating a robotic future, in which lifeless machines that simply perform their dull tasks are replaced by relatable co-workers that we can recognize as partners.

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