Sounds like the humanoid robots are coming!

Sounds like the humanoid robots are coming!

Humanoid robots are likely to become more commonplace in the future but why do some of us find the idea of them more than a little unsettling?

There are numerous reasons – from their slightly jerky movements to their facial expressions (or lack of) but one under-studied area is the sound they make.

Postgraduate robotics and psychology research student Joel Currie has been exploring this aspect of humanoid robots using Pepper – the University’s humanoid robot built by Aldebaran.

“A really good example of a consumer robot would be the Roomba – the little disc shaped vacuum cleaner,” Joel explains. “But what we tend to notice is while people are very happy to have a small, harmless robot scooting about doing their hoovering, when these robots become more advanced and more human-like, people’s anxiety around them increases.

“There’s a well-documented phenomenon known as the uncanny valley – a common unsettling feeling people experience when androids or humanoid robots or computer-generated imagery or audio closely resemble humans in many respects but just aren't quite convincingly realistic.

“This could be for a variety of reasons. People tend to find them quite unpredictable with how they move. They're quite jerky or too still and they find that quite uncanny.

“As humanoid robots are set to become more prevalent, what we're looking to do is try and ease the interaction between humans and robots.

“Sound is a very under-looked area in the field and it's really emerging how important it is in human robot interaction.”

Pepper is a humanoid robot developed to interact with humans and used by Joel and others at the University for research purposes. Pepper is able to see other people, localise faces and track them and can detect sounds in the environment and look in the direction the sound came from.

Joel has been conducting an online study where participants are shown videos of Pepper’s arm making a small movement. They are shown each video with different accompanying sounds – either slightly shorter or slightly longer and people are asked to indicate whether they think the movement was more exaggerated or less exaggerated depending on the sound. The study was funded by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science/ Economic and Social Research Council.

Joel said: “We found that when we played a sound that extended slightly beyond the motion, people saw a more exaggerated motion. Whereas when we played the sound that was slightly shorter, they saw a less exaggerated motion.

“This could help inform the design of future humanoid robots as manufacturers seek to make them more accepted by people. There are also different needs for different sounds for different scenarios. For example, in entertainment, you might want a more exaggerated sound, whereas in flexible manufacturing where people are working alongside a robot you maybe want a less exaggerated sound so people feel safe around it.”

But should we be worried about the increase in these humanoid robots – not just from a social aspect, but also in terms of them potentially eliminating people’s jobs. Joel remains positive.

“As robots are becoming more prevalent, the way I think about it is they're able to do a lot of the dangerous tasks that we maybe don't want to do, allowing us to do a lot more of the things that we do want to do.”

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