Photograph by Chris Morris
By Chris Morris
March 17, 2015

Odds are you’ve interacted with a robot in the past few days, whether you realized it or not.

Maybe it’s the Roomba that automatically vacuumed your floors or perhaps you talked to the digital assistant on your smartphone. Whatever that interaction, the robotic age is becoming more woven into the fabric of society. But instead of simply being tools (like automated factory machinery) modern robots are becoming more interactive – and more social.

“I think this is the year we embrace social robots,” says Andrea Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics and founder of Robot Launchpad, speaking at a panel at South By Southwest Interactive conference. “We’re starting to see robots interact with people. Earlier robots didn’t interact as much as perform.”

Specifically, she’s talking about early robots like AIBO and Pleo, digital pets that charmed some people, but had others wondering whether the forecast robot revolution was nothing but hot air.

Today’s robots do a lot more. Geppetto Labs, for instance, has designed an interface that helps diagnose medical problems, helping to triage patients remotely.

The system uses an interactive animated avatar to talk with patients, reading their body language (including things like gesture, posturer, tone of voice and facial expressions) to determine their status – and suggest whether a trip to the doctor is actually necessary. It’s useful for things like allergy attacks and skin rashes (which it looks at via photos patients snap) rather than serious issues like chest pain.

Should the avatar – called Sophie – think a doctor’s visit is warranted, the system will pass along all of the information it has gathered to the doctor.

While that could lead to fears that nurses and other healthcare professionals could be displaced, Mark Stephen Meadows, chief software officer at Geppetto Labs, says the goal is to actually give them more face time with patients.

“While there is some displacement … what we want to do is automate the boring stuff,” he says. “While we may displace some workers, others can do so much more.”

While talking to a robot – albeit one that looks like a video game character – about your sniffles, aches and pains might sound odd, there’s some proof that people tend to open up more to machinery than they do to some humans.

“Some people don’t tell their doctors embarrassing things … but [robots] may get people to open up more,” says Alex Reben, founder and CEO of Blabdroid. “You feel confident not being judged by a robot.”

To illustrate this point, his company created tiny cardboard robots that approached 75 people and asked them a series of intimately personal questions – such as “What would you regret most if you died tomorrow?” and “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” They got some surprisingly candid answers.

One person admitted to putting Nair in their roommate’s shampoo bottle. Another confessed to cheating on his girlfriend. And a third broke down crying, saying they wish they had spent more time with their parents before they died.

“If I come up with a camera and ask ‘if you could take back something from your childhood what would that be?’ the answer would be more play acting,” he says.

The result were so impressive that Blabdroid is now working with hospice organizations to let dying patients tell their story or get things off of their chest before they pass. And post-traumatic stress disorder groups have made inquiries as well.

The evolution of robots into social creatures is more than just programming. Creators have to be careful to make them physically accessible as well.

“[R2D2] has been the template of interaction with most social robots,” says Keay. “It’s not too human, but you can understand a heck of a lot from a few beeps.”

Indeed, there’s a line between the welcoming nature of C3PO and the creepiness of some “lifelike” robots being created in Japan. It’s called the Uncanny Valley – a concept that dates back to 1906 – and it refers to the dip in the comfort level we have in dealing with subjects as they look and move a little too much like humans – but not close enough.

(It’s that same sense of unease that people get from wax figures, dolls and zombies.)

To get around that, Reben’s robots have child-like features – wide eyes and a rounder head, but make no effort to simulate a human appearance. Those human-like elements, fused with traditional robotic elements put people at ease – and actually draw them to the machines.

Of course, as robots become more social and people interact with them on a more intimate basis, there is a privacy concern. Many of these systems relay the information to other humans – which Meadows warns is something to remain both aware and cautious of.

“A robot is [just] a weirdly shaped computer,” he says. “We have to approach these as we would drugs. What are the side effects? What are the implications? These are systems designed to get you to open up.”

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