You only get one chance to make a first impression, and that's true if you're a robot as well as if you're a person. The first time that I met one of these robots was at a place called Willow Garage in 2008. When I went to visit there, my host walked me into the building and we met this little guy. He was rolling into the hallway, came up to me, sat there, stared blankly past me, did nothing for a while, rapidly spun his head around 180 degrees and then ran away.
And that was not a great first impression. The thing that I learned about robots that day is that they kind of do their own thing, and they're not totally aware of us. And I think as we're experimenting with these possible robot futures, we actually end up learning a lot more about ourselves as opposed to just these machines. And what I learned that day was that I had pretty high expectations for this little dude. He was not only supposed to be able to navigate the physical world, but also be able to navigate my social world — he's in my space; it's a personal robot. wWhy didn't it understand me? My host explained to me, "Well, the robot is trying to get from point A to point B, and you were an obstacle in his way, so he had to replan his path, figure out where to go, and then get there some other way," which was actually not a very efficient thing to do. If that robot had figured out that I was a person, not a chair, and that I was willing to get out of its way if it was trying to get somewhere, then it actually would have been more efficient at getting its job done if it had bothered to notice that I was a human and that I have different affordances than things like chairs and walls do.
You know, we tend to think of these robots as being from outer space and from the future and from science fiction, and while that could be true, I'd actually like to argue that robots are here today, and they live and work amongst us right now. These are two robots that live in my home. They vacuum the floors and they cut the grass every single day, which is more than I would do if I actually had time to do these tasks, and they probably do it better than I would, too. This one actually takes care of my kitty. Every single time he uses the box, it cleans it, which is not something I'm willing to do, and it actually makes his life better as well as mine. And while we call these robot products — it's a "robot vacuum cleaner, it's a robot lawnmower, it's a robot littler box," I think there's actually a bunch of other robots hiding in plain sight that have just become so darn useful and so darn mundane that we call them things like, "dishwasher," right? They get new names. They don't get called robot anymore because they actually serve a purpose in our lives. Similarly, a thermostat, right? I know my robotics friends out there are probably cringing at me calling this a robot, but it has a goal. Its goal is to make my house 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and it senses the world. It knows it's a little bit cold, it makes a plan and then it acts on the physical world. It's robotics. Even if it might not look like Rosie the Robot, it's doing something that's really useful in my life so I don't have to take care of turning the temperature up and down myself.
And I think these systems live and work amongst us now, and not only are these systems living amongst us but you are probably a robot operator, too. When you drive your car, it feels like you are operating machinery. You are also going from point A to point B, but your car probably has power steering, it probably has automatic braking systems, it might have an automatic transmission and maybe even adaptive cruise control. And while it might not be a fully autonomous car, it has bits of autonomy, and they're so useful and they make us drive safer, and we just sort of feel like they're invisible-in-use, right? So when you're driving your car, you should just feel like you're going from one place to another. It doesn't feel like it's this big thing that you have to deal with and operate and use these controls because we spent so long learning how to drive that they've become extensions of ourselves. When you park that car in that tight little garage space, you know where your corners are. And when you drive a rental car that maybe you haven't driven before, it takes some time to get used to your new robot body. And this is also true for people who operate other types of robots, so I'd like to share with you a few stories about that.
Dealing with the problem of remote collaboration. So, at Willow Garage I had a coworker named Dallas, and Dallas looked like this. He worked from his home in Indiana in our company in California. He was a voice in a box on the table in most of our meetings, which was kind of OK except that, you know, if we had a really heated debate and we didn't like what he was saying, we might just hang up on him.
Then we might have a meeting after that meeting and actually make the decisions in the hallway afterwards when he wasn't there anymore. So that wasn't so great for him. And as a robotics company at Willow, we had some extra robot body parts laying around, so Dallas and his buddy Curt put together this thing, which looks kind of like Skype on a stick on wheels, which seems like a techy, silly toy, but really it's probably one of the most powerful tools that I've seen ever made for remote collaboration. So now, if I didn't answer Dallas' email question, he could literally roll into my office, block my doorway and ask me the question again —
until I answered it. And I'm not going to turn him off, right? That's kind of rude. Not only was it good for these one-on-one communications, but also for just showing up at the company all-hands meeting. Getting your butt in that chair and showing people that you're present and committed to your project is a big deal and can help remote collaboration a ton.
We saw this over the period of months and then years, not only at our company but at others, too. The best thing that can happen with these systems is that it starts to feel like you're just there. It's just you, it's just your body, and so people actually start to give these things personal space. So when you're having a stand-up meeting, people will stand around the space just as they would if you were there in person. That's great until there's breakdowns and it's not. People, when they first see these robots, are like, "Wow, where's the components? There must be a camera over there," and they start poking your face. "You're talking too softly, I'm going to turn up your volume," which is like having a coworker walk up to you and say, "You're speaking too softly, I'm going to turn up your face." That's awkward and not OK, and so we end up having to build these new social norms around using these systems.
Similarly, as you start feeling like it's your body, you start noticing things like, "Oh, my robot is kind of short." Dallas would say things to me — he was six-foot tall — and we would take him via robot to cocktail parties and things like that, as you do, and the robot was about five-foot-tall, which is close to my height. And he would tell me, "You know, people are not really looking at me. I feel like I'm just looking at this sea of shoulders, and it's just — we need a taller robot." And I told him, "Um, no. You get to walk in my shoes for today. You get to see what it's like to be on the shorter end of the spectrum." And he actually ended up building a lot of empathy for that experience, which was kind of great. So when he'd come visit in person, he no longer stood over me as he was talking to me, he would sit down and talk to me eye to eye, which was kind of a beautiful thing.
So we actually decided to look at this in the laboratory and see what others kinds of differences things like robot height would make. And so half of the people in our study used a shorter robot, half of the people in our study used a taller robot and we actually found that the exact same person who has the exact same body and says the exact same things as someone, is more persuasive and perceived as being more credible if they're in a taller robot form. It makes no rational sense, but that's why we study psychology. And really, you know, the way that Cliff Nass would put this is that we're having to deal with these new technologies despite the fact that we have very old brains. Human psychology is not changing at the same speed that tech is and so we're always playing catch-up, trying to make sense of this world where these autonomous things are running around. Usually, things that talk are people, not machines, right? And so we breathe a lot of meaning into things like just height of a machine, not a person, and attribute that to the person using the system.
You know, this, I think, is really important when you're thinking about robotics. It's not so much about reinventing humans, it's more about figuring out how we extend ourselves, right? And we end up using things in ways that are sort of surprising. So these guys can't play pool because the robots don't have arms, but they can heckle the guys who are playing pool and that can be an important thing for team bonding, which is kind of neat. People who get really good at operating these systems will even do things like make up new games, like robot soccer in the middle of the night, pushing the trash cans around.
But not everyone's good. A lot of people have trouble operating these systems. This is actually a guy who logged into the robot and his eyeball was turned 90 degrees to the left. He didn't know that, so he ended up just bashing around the office, running into people's desks, getting super embarrassed, laughing about it — his volume was way too high. And this guy here in the image is telling me, "We need a robot mute button." And by that what he really meant was we don't want it to be so disruptive. So as a robotics company, we added some obstacle avoidance to the system. It got a little laser range finder that could see the obstacles, and if I as a robot operator try to say, run into a chair, it wouldn't let me, it would just plan a path around, which seems like a good idea.
People did hit fewer obstacles using that system, obviously, but actually, for some of the people, it took them a lot longer to get through our obstacle course, and we wanted to know why. It turns out that there's this important human dimension — a personality dimension called locus of control, and people who have a strong internal locus of control, they need to be the masters of their own destiny — really don't like giving up control to an autonomous system — so much so that they will fight the autonomy; "If I want to hit that chair, I'm going to hit that chair." And so they would actually suffer from having that autonomous assistance, which is an important thing for us to know as we're building increasingly autonomous, say, cars, right? How are different people going to grapple with that loss of control? It's going to be different depending on human dimensions. We can't treat humans as if we're just one monolithic thing. We vary by personality, by culture, we even vary by emotional state moment to moment, and being able to design these systems, these human-robot interaction systems, we need to take into account the human dimensions, not just the technological ones.
Along with a sense of control also comes a sense of responsibility. And if you were a robot operator using one of these systems, this is what the interface would look like. It looks a little bit like a video game, which can be good because that's very familiar to people, but it can also be bad because it makes people feel like it's a video game. We had a bunch of kids over at Stanford play with the system and drive the robot around our office in Menlo Park, and the kids started saying things like, "10 points if you hit that guy over there. 20 points for that one." And they would chase them down the hallway.
I told them, "Um, those are real people. They're actually going to bleed and feel pain if you hit them." And they'd be like, "OK, got it." But five minutes later, they would be like, "20 points for that guy over there, he just looks like he needs to get hit." It's a little bit like "Ender's Game," right? There is a real world on that other side and I think it's our responsibility as people designing these interfaces to help people remember that there's real consequences to their actions and to feel a sense of responsibility when they're operating these increasingly autonomous things.
These are kind of a great example of experimenting with one possible robotic future, and I think it's pretty cool that we can extend ourselves and learn about the ways that we extend ourselves into these machines while at the same time being able to express our humanity and our personality. We also build empathy for others in terms of being shorter, taller, faster, slower, and maybe even armless, which is kind of neat.
We also build empathy for the robots themselves. This is one of my favorite robots. It's called the Tweenbot. And this guy has a little flag that says, "I'm trying to get to this intersection in Manhattan," and it's cute and rolls forward, that's it. It doesn't know how to build a map, it doesn't know how to see the world, it just asks for help. The nice thing about people is that it can actually depend upon the kindness of strangers. It did make it across the park to the other side of Manhattan — which is pretty great — just because people would pick it up and point it in the right direction.
And that's great, right?
We're trying to build this human-robot world in which we can coexist and collaborate with one another, and we don't need to be fully autonomous and just do things on our own. We actually do things together. And to make that happen, we actually need help from people like the artists and the designers, the policy makers, the legal scholars, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists — we need more perspectives in the room if we're going to do the thing that Stu Card says we should do, which is invent the future that we actually want to live in.
And I think we can continue to experiment with these different robotic futures together, and in doing so, we will end up learning a lot more about ourselves.