Grandma & Grandpa's Farm

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Robot in the House

Whir - Can I Help You?

What sort of robot would you like to meet you at home? I am not speaking of the boring domestic idea of a robot that is the dishwasher or toaster or microwave, nor the multi disc CD or DVD changer in your entertainment unit. (Is my age showing? They still have CD players right?) I am meaning a walk around the house, pick the laundry off the floor, answer the door, walk the cat, water the dog, vacuum the dishes and wash the roses - robot!

Do you see R2D2 or C3P0? Do you see the positronic robot from "I Robot" or Honda's ASIMO? (picture on the right from a press release about ASIMO.) I have seen a bit in the past written about the psychology of android and robot design. I guess it might have come out some time before Star Wars came out - that was "Star Wars" when there was just the one film. There was an article pondering just what form robot helpers might take - perhaps it was in an Isaac Asimov nonfiction book?

I really can't remember where the article or book's musings ended and mine started - it did get me thinking on the subject though. The article was talking about how if an android looked and acted too much like a person it would cause fear in people because they could not tell it from people, yet it might be fundamentally different. The human appearing android might harbour a danger - perhaps in the form of an emotionless killer or a perfect lier without any "tell". We might fall in love with such a construct and perhaps be very hurt or perhaps betray confidences without knowing.

On the other hand an android which was too different, like one of obvious gears and cogs might evoke fear because it was too alien - too hard to relate to or feel confidence in.

Whether very human looking or not human at all, a question might be, would you trust it to look after your children? Would you trust it to drive your car? Would you trust it to buy your groceries or pick up that prescription at the pharmacy? Would you trust it with the plans to the Deathstar?

After thinking on it I considered what I saw in the world around me. People feared the robots of "West World" and others which looked identical to humans. They used mechanical looking robots as monsters all the time. "Mechagodzilla" was intended to be scarier looking than "Godzilla" was because it was obviously mechanical. Even half-way friendly robots like Roby from "Forbidden Planet" or the protective robot of the original 60's series "Lost in Space" still had a fear factor. Robots that were obviously "mechanical men" evoked fear and robots that were not really man-shaped also did even when they acted friendly.

Personally I found marionettes and ventriloquists dummies scary. that might be a hold-over from seasons of the original "Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits". Those not so "mechanical men" would not give me much confidence. I also hated getting pinched by a mechanical tin toy I had a child. But there was something from my environment that did give me an idea. While marionettes and ventriloquist dummies gave me the willies, hand puppets and stuffed animals didn't. Granted they hadn't come up with knife welding killer teddy bears yet. But they had just come up with "Muppets"!

Muppets look different enough not to be confused with real people or animals and yet they do not have the scary bits of a mechanical man. I think it is something in a way like how a skeleton is scary. Those bony mechanical bits are supposed to be kept on the inside. I think that at least from a psychological and trust perspective it might be easier to trust a muppet-like robot in the home. I think that the robots and androids that became popular had some features of them. Even C3PO who was quite obviously a mechanical man had a muppet-like quality, I think. I think the comedy relief aspects helped out with their acceptance as well as the voice and sound characterizations and kinetic acting skills of the actor inside C3PO.

In some ways I think C3P0 might be an exception that proves the rule...

Other aspects of acceptable robots are that they tend to be a bit out of scale and they tend not to have edges to bite. There was Tweeky from the Buck Rogers televisions series for instance. I know I am giving ancient 30+ year old examples, but I am giving the examples from the time when I was thinking of this stuff. You might include all the larger and smaller than normal furred characters in the acceptable sorts.

Anyway I figured that acceptable robots would be somewhat like muppets. The would be larger or smaller than us and wouldn't have sharp corners or external rods or levers - their skeletons would be covered. They would not make quick moves - at least not unnecessarily. I think that ASIMO fits into that really. ASIMO might not be covered with fur but it is very smooth looking and moving.

I guess there might be a problem with allergies for muppet nursemaids, maids, and buttlers and purple fur covered gardners would be just always needing cleaning and having burs picked out of their fur.

Still, I wonder if you can get ASIMO fitted in a nice blue hypoallergenic padded fur suit?.

~ Darrell


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