advertisement-vertical Download Proto magazine app
Social Icons
Practice tireless patience at a stroke victim’s side // Be a bridge into the autistic world //
Nudge a person with dementia to walk down the right hallway // all by trying a little tenderness.

The Sociable Robot

By Anita Slomski // Winter 2009
icon-pdfpdf icon-printprint
socially assistive robot

Adaptive Systems Research Group, University of Hertfordshire

Before consumers send Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners to the manufacturer in St. James, N.Y., for repair, they often etch their names on the machines in the hopes of getting their own robots back. For the manufacturer, that’s not ideal—it’s cheaper to replace the squat, disc-shaped floor and carpet sweepers than to fix them. Yet, somehow, owners grow attached to the contraptions and worry that a new robot will have a different personality.

“People are grateful that the Roomba improves their lives, so they reciprocate by giving it attention like they would a pet,” says Ja-Young Sung, a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech who surveyed 379 Roomba owners in 2007 on their attitudes toward the robotic device. Sung found many owners who gave their Roombas names and painted them, adorned them with stickers or dressed them in costumes. Although the Roomba’s “more primitive programming” causes it to bump into furniture as it randomly—and not always efficiently—cleans, some find that trait endearing.

“Human actions aren’t predictable, so the Roomba’s randomness feels more human,” says Sung, who admits that she talks to her own Roomba. And like parents coaching a child to perform a song, Roomba owners frequently turn on the machines to entertain friends, while neighbors pit their Roombas against each other on a homemade racetrack.

That willingness to interact with an object that, if not inanimate, is still hardly human, presents both a challenge and an opportunity for creators of devices that go far beyond housekeeping to imitate the actions of people. As difficult as it is to design a robot that can assemble a Toyota or handle toxic waste, it’s even harder to make a walking, talking machine that’s “socially assistive.” That phrase was coined in 2004 by Maja J. Matarić, director of the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the University of Southern California, and her research group to describe machines that could be therapeutically useful through social interaction—coaching, motivating and monitoring people with cognitive and physical disabilities.

A socially assistive robot could, for example, tirelessly encourage a stroke patient to do rehabilitation exercises. It might walk next to someone with dementia, giving directions to help navigate the hallways of an assisted-living facility while chatting companionably. Or it could be a nonthreatening catalyst to teach children with autism how to interact with humans.

Service robots aren’t new; rehabilitation machines used primarily to push or pull stroke patients’ limbs have been around for a decade. But such devices are heavy, expensive and not particularly good company, Matarić says. Only recently have roboticists been able to go further, delving into the complex realm of human-robot interactions, as much a study of human psychology as of engineering. For a human to relate to a robot, the machine must be capable of any number of qualities: expressing a personality, discerning the user’s emotions and intentions, displaying feelings such as empathy, or following social conventions. “A socially ignorant robot always takes a direct path, stops if something is in its way and interrupts at any point to do its task,” explains Kerstin Dautenhahn, research professor in the School of Computer Science at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. “But a socially interactive robot modifies its path to avoid getting too close to a human, waits until the right time to talk and fetches items without being asked.”

previous // next
icon-pdfpdf icon-printprint

The Vigilant Home

Machine intelligence doesn’t have to be humanoid.

Improving Speech through Play

In this video from The Washington Post, CosmoBot and “Play to Learn” software help one developmentally disabled boy.


1. “Socially Intelligent Robots: Dimensions of Human-Robot Interaction,” by Kerstin Dautenhahn, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, Feb. 13, 2007. Dautenhahn argues that social capabilities should not be considered an add-on but rather a crucial part of robots’ cognitive skills.

2. “Trends and Controversies: Human-Inspired Robots,” by Hiroshi Ishiguro et al., IEEE Intelligent Systems, July/August 2006. A discussion of the challenges in endowing robots with humanlike appearance, movements and perception; of developing a natural language that allows machines and people to converse; of creating reasoning that allows robots to make rational decisions; and of designing algorithms to allow robots to learn new skills and tasks.

3.“The Grand Challenges in Socially Assistive Robotics,” by Adriana Tapus, Maja J. Matarić and Brian Scassellati, IEEE Robotics and Automation, March 2007. An excellent overview of the promise robots hold for helping people with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Protomag on Facebook Protomag on Twitter