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Next social computing frontier: highly social robots

Next social computing frontier: highly social robots

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Highly social robots could be highly engaging, and even be persuasive to the point of helping people maintain healthy habits. There's a lot of potential for business applications as well.

A few months back, while visiting Disneyland's Tomorrowland, I had the opportunity to sit in on a demonstration of Asimo, the highly mobile robot developed by Honda. Asimo is capable of walking on two legs, running at a two-mile-an-hour clip, and walking up and down steps. Asimo is also very friendly, and potentially could serve as an accommodating housekeeper.

Robots are getting increasingly social. It's always been grist for science fiction. Anyone who has seen Star Wars is comfortably familiar with the gentlemanly engaging C3PO, with his dry wit. The ever-helpful Bishop from Aliens was actually offended at being referred to as an android. "I prefer the term 'artificial person' myself," he sniffed. The incredibly smart Data from Star Trek: Next Generation even had latent stirrings of human sexuality.

What are some of the business applications we may see as a result? One thing, robots are increasingly becoming accessible to consumers and businesses at all levels. Be sure to check out SmartPlanet colleague Christina Hernandez's chat with David Luan, who is building the next generation of software to bring robots to consumers -- and even create a robot "app store" with all the latest innovations.

Highly social robots could be highly engaging, and even be persuasive to the point of helping people maintain healthy habits, according to Cynthia Breazeal, associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director the Personal Robots Group at the Media Lab. Breazeal talked about her work at a recent TED conference, explaining how highly social robots could play a role in childhood development.


Breazeal makes the following point:

"Robots are actually a really intriguing social technology. Where it's actually their ability to push our social buttons and to interact with us like a partner that is a core part of their functionality. And with that shift in thinking, we can now start to imagine new questions, new possibilities for robots that we might not have thought about otherwise."

A highly sociable robot may play a more persuasive role in people's decisions, Breazeal points out.  "People just behave like people even when interacting with a robot," she says. In her TED talk, she cites some lab work in which subjects responded positively to engaging robots that mimicked human gestures and emotions.

Shades of the Turing Test -- in which artificial intelligence is said to reach human capacity when a human can no longer tell if he or she in engaging with a machine -- on steroids.

A couple of potential applications for social robots, described by Breazeal:

  • Telepresence tied to cell phones: "If robots do respond to our non-verbal cues, maybe they would be a cool, new communication technology. So imagine this: What about a robot accessory for your cellphone? You call your friend, she puts her handset in a robot, and, bam!, you're a MeBot -- you can make eye contact, you can talk with your friends, you can move around, you can gesture -- maybe the next best thing to really being there, or is it?"
  • Health coach: "In the United States today, over 65% of people are either overweight or obese, and now it's a big problem with our children as well. And we know that as you get older in life, if you're obese when you're younger, that can lead to chronic diseases that not only reduce our quality of life, but are a tremendous economic burden on our health care system. But if robots can be engaging, if we like to cooperate with robots, if robots are persuasive, maybe a robot can help you maintain a diet and exercise program, maybe they can help you manage your weight. ....a kind of friendly supportive presence that's always there to be able to help you make the right decision in the right way, at the right time, to help you form healthy habits."

But is this always a good thing, or perhaps too intrusive?  Along with the personal applications Breazeal mentions, there are a range of business applications that may develop as robots gain social skills. Customer service at point of sale and remotely over the Web come to mind for starters. Training environments seem to be another venue in which interactive, friendly robots or robotic devices may be beneficial. Social robots may play a role in law enforcement and security. A lot of possibilities that are just starting to be imagined.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure