How engineers build lovable robotsS

This Friday people will be watching Her, a movie about a man who falls in love with the AI system that runs his house. In the film, his love is serendipitous; but in real life, there are engineers creating robots expressly designed to win human love. How do they do it?

Heartbot image via Masked Rabbit Crafts

So you want people to fall in love with a robot. Well, you've got human nature on your side. People will anthropomorphize anything. Long before the idea of robots got off the ground, in a practical sense, people were hugging stuffed toys and writing stories about sentient Christmas trees. We see faces in clouds and get into fights with our cars. We're suckers. But how do you help that along?

Don't Bother Keeping Up Appearances

How engineers build lovable robotsS

There are robots out there that are famous for looking as much like humans as possible. Obviously there are the Real Dolls, but there are also lifelike human babies that are meant to be "parented" by people who don't have real children. These robots look real, but not all robots have such exact specifications. In fact, veering away from human features might be more effective. When it comes to getting people to love robots, sometimes a deliberate fake-out is better.

Recently, a robot called Paro hit the headlines. Paro is a robot seal that is meant to be a companion to elderly people with dementia. Why a seal? The company tested dog and cat robots, but not only is it tough to get robots to walk, people were too familiar with actual dogs and cats. The robot suffered in comparison. Harp seal pups were familiar enough for a robot based on them to get a warm reception, but unfamiliar enough that differences between real seals and Paro aren't the first thing to be noticed.

How engineers build lovable robotsS

Letting go of reality entirely yields a lot of advantages. An early copy of instructions to Disney animators shows that a "cute type" character has several set characteristics that can't be found in reality. A massively oversized head with large eyes, a tiny nose and mouth, and a huge forehead is cute. It's especially cute if it's set on a big body with stubby limbs. That's a physical type that people find immediately endearing. Tap into that immediate appeal, and you can get away with a lot.

A robot created at MIT roped people into doing on-camera interviews by harnessing the power of cuteness. Boxie was nothing more than a big cardboard box head stacked on a little cardboard box body, with rollers for legs. It had big eyes, a tiny upturned curve of a mouth, and a toddler voice. It roamed around in public randomly, asking for help in its little voice, and people came up to it, lifted it to camera level, and happily gave interviews. Imagine if there was just a camera and list of instructions in Boxie's place. Would you take time out of your day, carefully adjust the camera, and give an interview? The right, exaggeratedly cute, design not only got people interested, it made them want to "help" the robot overcome its own design flaws.

Create An Interactive Mirror

Cuteness, or physical appeal, might be a way to get people interested in a robot, but most will move on unless that cuteness is relevant to them. Again, this is where roboticists luck out. People will think almost anything is interacting with them. In one study, researchers put people in a room with a rectangular balsa wood stick on a mechanical stand that allowed the stick to be moved. Although a technician did control the stick-robot, they made it go through a pre-arranged series of motions, regardless of the actions of the person in the room. Some people said the stick was "searching" for something, but most believed that the stick was interacting with them somehow. One got mad because the stick kept pointing at her. We're a self-centered bunch, humanity.

How engineers build lovable robots

The trick to getting a person to love a robot is to make the interaction one that the human being finds pleasant or useful. Paro does this by indicating that it wants to be petted, and making pleasant noises. One of the first "bots" did it by accident. ELIZA was designed to be a robot therapist. Specifically, she was designed to be a bad therapist, the kind of therapist who responds with, "what do you think about that," and "why did you react that way," to anything the patient says. She was a parody, right up until people started interacting with her. While some "patients" were indifferent to ELIZA's questions, others happily chatted on and on. The open-ended interaction was exactly what they needed, and they responded to her so well that, for a time, an ELIZA system was suggested as a cheap way to treat large amounts of people. Considering how many people get a crush on their shrink, giving people a simple, confidential sounding board that allows them to say all the things they want to say would be a great way to get them to love a robot.

Tug Heartstrings

Does anyone remember the first robot that stole their heart? Well, if they lived in a certain era, it was probably called tamagotchi. Tamagotchis reached their peak popularity in the 1990s, although they're still available both as collectors' items and as apps. They were little pods on key chains with about four buttons and a screen only marginally larger than the display on a digital watch. On that screen was a highly pixilated "pet" that needed its owner to use the buttons to feed it, water it, and play with it. If it didn't get enough play time, it died, leaving either a little angel or a little ghost in its place to instill guilt. People tended these things like they were children.

How engineers build lovable robots

And people still tend to robots, whether they are pixels or robot seals or anything else, like children - as long as those robots need things the way children do. Paro, in addition to making cooing noises when petted, will make distressed noises when hit. He will ask to be fed electricity. He will need naps. And his owner is meant to enjoy taking care of him.

People also want to protect robots. One study monitored people watching a robot being abused. Adults, knowing that the robot was circuits, got agitated when they saw the being mistreated. Watching robot suffering does a lot to people - it convinces them of the humanity of a robot, makes them feel protective of the robot, and gives them a positive feeling when they take care of the robot. We need to be needed.

One very disturbing study had children interacting with a robot. The robot - guided by technicians in another room - approached the kids, made conversation, helped them with a game. The game was interrupted by a scientist and the robot was promptly shoved into a closet so that scientist could ask the kid a few questions. As the robot was being put away, it begged, "Please don't put me in the closet!" It doesn't matter who you are, or how much you know the robot it a bucket of bolts - that hurts. After witnessing the robot's "pain" over half the kids said that it wasn't okay to put the robot in the closet. Ninety percent of them thought it was "unfair" to put the robot in the closet before it could finish playing the game. Throughout the session the kids, who ranged from grade school age to mid-teens, treated the robot like a human. They were happy to give it a hug. They gave it affection.

Never Let People Forget That These Are Robots

They just didn't give it civil rights. Eighty percent of the kids felt it was just fine to buy and sell the robot. They said this after most of them thought that the robot was intelligent, had feelings, and deserved fairness. People, apparently, give affection far before we give consideration or respect.

How engineers build lovable robotsS

And that may be the secret to getting people to love robots. The difference between Paro and a real pet isn't just that a real pet may inadvertently hurt its owner. The difference is no one cares if Paro "dies" or is neglected. The difference between a tamagotchi and a cat is, when the tamagotchi dies, people shrug it off and the game gives them another, while even the most hard-up cat shelters will stop giving out cats eventually (don't ask me how I know). Boxie might guilt you into an interview, but you know that at any time you can easily walk away. Actual, real girlfriends and actual, real babies, demand more time and attention than the most realistic doll in the world. And ELIZA's biggest asset, even at the height of her appeal, has always been that she is "low-cost." People don't just love robots because they're lifelike, and so can provide and receive affection. People love them because they're not alive, and deserve no particular care.

The trick, then, isn't exactly simulating reality to get people to fall in love. People are able to attach themselves to anything. It's allowing people to experience enough of the pleasures of love - aesthetic appeal, emotional support, and physical comfort - while letting them know that they aren't on the hook for any responsibility. That will get people willing to fall in love mighty fast.

Sources: IEEE Spectrum, FastCo Design, LA Times, New York Times.