Designing social robots

Event: Social Robotics Breakfast

Time: 29.10.2018 klo 8.30-11.30

Place: Futurice, Helsinki

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Social Robotics Breakfast organized by Futurice brought together people enthusiastic about robots, design and plentiful breakfasts, so no wonder I was there as well.

Introduction to Social Robotics

The morning started with a panel discussion about social robotics. The panel consisted of human experts involved in social robotics research as well as Momo the Robot – Futurice’s very own social robot used for experimenting the different aspects of social interaction between people and robots. I had seen videos of Momo before and I knew that there’s a human behind the screens making Momo talk, but seeing it live was still an interesting experience. I somehow felt like it was Momo speaking despite knowing it’s just a “robot-shaped loudspeaker”.

What is a Social Robot?

The panel started by defining a social robot as a robot whose main task is to interact with humans, which is why designing social robots should be human-centric, not technology-centric. Human-centricity tends to lead into designing human-like robots even though that wouldn’t be technologically reasonable. However, human-like robots are often perceived as “slightly weird humans” having their own personality and characteristics, which may lead into unrealistic expectations towards the robot. Social robot designers definitely need to think about how to set the expectations to correct level and clearly express what the robot is capable of.

The New Era of Robotics

According to the panel, a new era of robotics is about to begin. Robots are no longer restricted in the factories but operate among us, which means that a new social layer is needed to enable safe and comfortable interaction between humans and robots. Even the infrastructure may need to change to accommodate the needs of robots moving around. All this requires cooperation between engineers, designers, UX experts and other professionals. People have traditionally divided things into three categories: non-living things, living animals and humans. Ultimately this new era of robots could even lead into a fourth category of robots emerging.

Social Robotics in Health Care

Niina Holappa from Prizztech, Mika Koverola from the University of Helsinki and Minja Axelsson from Futurice shared their experiences from designing and researching social robots in health care.

Ethical considerations had a strong emphasis in all presentations during the day. With more traditional robots used in diagnostics and logistics or for clinical and rehabilitative purposes, the traditional etchical criteria such as safety and price are sufficient. However, with new types of social robots enabling telepresence, assisting and accompanying the patients, new considerations related to e.g. privacy, fear, affection and confusion need to be dealt with.

Overall the attitude towards health care robots of both the patients and the personnel is tolerant, but there are also worries. The biggest worries of the patients are the lack of knowledge and the fear of losing human contact, whereas the personnel is worried about being replaced with technology and not getting enough technical support.

Summarized, a social robot is ethical if it is supportive and can be used voluntarily.

Creating a social robot

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The event ended with a quick workshop where we got to design our own social robots with the help of Futurice’s Social Robot Design Toolkit. The toolkit consisted of different canvases that guided us from defining the user group and their needs to thinking about different problems and solutions as well as defining our design guidelines and finally creating the robot design MVP.

The canvases loosely followed the double diamond process, though we of course didn’t have time for actual research or user testing. There were also elements specific to robot design such as thinking about the sensors and communication technologies, and defining the possible problems and solutions also from the robot point of view. Also ethics were strongly present on almost each of the canvases.

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Our team came up with Bud – a personalized companion for kids with chronic diseases. Bud welcomes the kids in the hospital and supports them during their patient journey, maybe even turning the unpleasant hospital visits into something cool and enjoyable.

Due to the limited time reserved for the workshop we unfortunately didn’t have time to go through all the canvases properly. However, the process brings a nice human-centric touch to designing robots and I would definitely like to try it again – though as a M.Sc. in automation technology I would only use it as an additional thought provoker to the technical design.

More information and ideas:

https://www.futuricerobotics.com/

https://spiceprogram.org/other-encounter/

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