These are some of the questions researchers will pose at the UAE’s first symposium on social robotics, to be held at UAE University, Al Ain, and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYU AD) on November 22 and November 23.

The public event, held under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, will feature some of the world’s leading experts on robotics.

While we have been using industrial robots on assembly lines for decades, and even allowed robotic toys and vacuum cleaners into our homes, researchers are now looking at the next level of human-robot relations, when robots could be medical aides, personal assistants or secretaries, and therapeutic companions for the elderly or disabled.

“Social robotics is a branch of robotics that’s about trying to make the robots as human-like as possible in the way they behave and the way they interact with humans and with other robots,” said Dr Mohammad Eid, Assistant Professor of Practice of Electrical Engineering at NYU AD. “In my opinion, the ultimate goal would be to have a robot that interacts with you in exactly the same way as a human being interacts, in a way that hopefully you don’t differentiate that this is a robot, not a human being.”

But attempting to build a marketable robot that people will accept isn’t simply an engineering problem. If it is to work — and work well — we need to understand not only how robots operate, but how we humans operate.

“Here there are two questions,” said Dr Max Cappuccio, Assistant Professor at UAE University’s Department of Philosophy. “One question is how would people react when they have to deal with robots. And the other is how we can make robots that can interact with people in a successful way.”

“It depends on what type of functions and what appearance it has and what capabilities — social capabilities would turn this thing into a social agent,” added Dr Friederike Eyssel, Professor of Psychology at Bielefeld University, Germany, currently a visiting professor at NYU AD.

Human stereotypes and prejudices

As the three conference organisers spoke to me over coffee at NYU AD’s campus on Saadiyat Island, Dr Eyssel said that for efficient, error-free communication, robots would have to not only understand human interaction such as gestures, but would have to use them as well.

And they would have to work within human stereotypes and prejudices. “such as gender for instance,” said Dr Eyssel, “where you manipulate [perceived] gender of a robot by having shorter versus long hair. Short hair, for instance, would activate knowledge structures related to masculine things, whereas long hair would activate stereotypes related to women being warm, sociable.”

A test in the US, she said, indicated that although white Americans said they didn’t discriminate against robots that appeared to be black, they considered them less capable and would be less likely to buy one.

“What I’m saying is that these social categories — age, gender, race — could be applied or are used when we also interpret the robot object in front of us.”

Our ability to project human-like emotions and characteristics onto machines — to anthropomorphise them — isn’t limited to humanoid robots, said Dr Cappuccio, who highlighted the public outcry last year when a video of a researcher kicking one of Boston Dynamics’ doglike robots went on the internet. The researcher was attempting to demonstrate how stable the robot was; people considered kicking it cruel.

Reducing anxiety

Dr Eyssel observed a similar effect with the therapeutic robot Paro, designed to look like a baby seal (its creator, leading Japanese roboticist Professor Takanori Shibata will be a keynote speaker at the Abu Dhabi conference).

“I’ve seen videos from elderly care facilities in Japan where the old people really engage with it, even took it out to a restaurant. At one conference it was dropped to the floor and everyone was like, ‘Aah, oh my God. This “being” was dropped.’ One of the researchers picked it up to console it.

“Anthropomorphism can sometimes serve the function of reducing anxiety. If you have to deal with this system, you’re an old person, you’re confronted with the robot in your elderly care facility. Making it appear more human-like, attributing certain typical human-like traits to it, will reduce the anxiety of interaction.”

Dr Eid, the engineer said, “Coming from a haptic background, which is using our sense of touch for communication, I would say that one of the key interactions that has been missing in the state-of-the-art research is haptic interaction.

“My team is working on this now. I think this has great applications. For example, for elderly people. Nowadays people are having more robots in the home for personal assistance. The robot has to understand that it’s dealing with a human being and it has to interact with a human being in a very different way, haptically, visually and auditory. This is something that hasn’t been explored very well in the community; it’s something that people are exploring now.”

“It’s a very interdisciplinary field,” Dr Cappuccio added. “You really need to complement different competencies.”

“As engineers we have the technology, we know how to do things,” said Dr Eid. “But then, the bigger question in making this technology is to figure out if it will be useful. I’m not sure as an engineer if this is the best tool I can make, or the best form it could take. And this is where I look for collaboration with other experts.

“For me [a robot] is a machine that’s made up of sensors and actuators, a microprocessor and signal conditioning. That’s what I do. But then somebody else,” he indicates Dr Eyssel, “says that if you use long hair or short hair people will have a different reality, so I’m interested to learn about all these different aspects so that I can have a better understanding of what I’m actually working with.”

The conference organisers

Dr Mohammad Eid, Assistant Professor of Practice of Electrical Engineering at NYU AD, is a roboticist specialising in haptics (communication through touch).

Dr Friederike Eyssel, Professor of Psychology at Bielefeld University, Germany, currently a visiting professor at NYU AD, specialises in human-robot interaction, social psychology and social robotics.

Dr Max Cappuccio, Assistant Professor at UAE University’s Department of Philosophy and its Cognitive Science Laboratory, is interested in how robots decide what information is relevant to a task and the ethical dimensions when human life is at stake.