Why Social Robotics Really is Social

Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.

When you think of human-robot interactions, you may think of fictional characters like C3PO and Bender from Futurama or more true to life interactions like your Roomba. Whether it is fictional or non-fictional applications of robots, we as humans tend to anthropomorphize our metal companions in ways that tend to make them more social and easier to accept. STYX may have been way ahead of their time with their song “Mr. Roboto” and the implications they insinuate in their song (don’t believe me, re-listen to it!), but in our current day and age science fiction is quickly turning into science-fact. As a result of the increasing interactions humans are experiencing with robots, people are having to re-examine the effects these interactions are having on society and researching ways to make these non-biological automatons more companion like (think pets) and as a result easier to cohabitate with. This research and robot-integration is taking place across a myriad of various levels of education, starting now in grade-school and running the gamut, and is not only educational for all those involved, but can be loads of fun!

My most recent glimpse into this introduction and education of social robotics took place this past Thursday during an NCWIT Social Robotics Workshop held at the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. At this workshop, conducted by Dr. Goodall and Katy DeCorah, Eighth-grade students were given an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the NXT Mindstorms robotics platform and some core principles of the programming that makes these robots work. While at first glance the robots may appear to be the most prevalent focal point during this workshop (what kid wouldn’t want to play with legos!?), it quickly became clear that they were merely a tool to facilitate an active dialogue with the kids on their own ideas and interactions with robots (movies, books, toys,etc.). During this workshop, students were asked to perform increasingly more complex tasks with their new “wallE” like pals that culminated in a challenge to get their robots to drive in a square pattern, a task that quickly pitted the student groups against one another to see who could get their robot to perform a better square. The last concept delivered to these students was the concept of social robotics and the idea that robots can and should be polite and work harmoniously with its’ human companion. With that idea planted, the students were given free reign to program their robot companions to be more social by adding sounds, emoticons to the lcd readout, and provisions in the programming to utilize onboard sensors to avoid hitting objects and/or to be more social about the collision.

The ultimate goal of this workshop was to just introduce younger students to the concept of social robotics and to get them interested in computer science and technology in general. My take on the workshop was that it was not only wildly successful and fun for the students, but it was also exciting and educational for the mentors who worked the workshop. As one of those mentors I can honestly say that I had loads of fun working with the Lego Mindstorms platform and even more fun working with my fellow classmates. The younger students got to learn about technology, and the mentors all got to learn a little bit more about each other. In a way, it was kind of a team building exercise, and a workshop, and playtime all mixed into one. It is my humble opinion that events like this will play a dominant role in introducing various technological concepts to younger students, especially those who come from areas where technology may not be as popular are widely available, and I know I will seek to participate in future workshops.


Eric M. Palmatier
Senior, Information Science


4 thoughts on “Why Social Robotics Really is Social

  1. I agree with the statement that Science fiction is quickly turning to Science fact. In 1995 the world was impressed by a self-driving car called the Nab V contained a navigation system (which was built by the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University) which traveled from Washington D.C. to San Diego. The self naviagting car drove itself approximately 95 percent of the time. This was very impressive. Like wise, we may be impressed today by personal com??puters that are becoming much more proficient with recognizing text and speech. However, I believe the greatest challenge that roboticists face today is finding out how to make common computers and program them to match the greatest gift to the human race…The human brain! While Eric is correct that we may imagine"fictional characters like C3PO" becoming a reality soon,the fact is the articial brain that have been developed for the robots today are still way below the level of sophistication needed to in order to function like humanlike robot. In any event, I want to point out that while these invention and other such as the computer may have mezmoried us because of their functions and ability to do calculations at rates 100x faster than the average human, computers have not as of yet become sophisticated enough to function as articial brains for autonomous robots. Hopefully, by introducing these "younger students to the concept of social robotics" they will become robot scientists and develop a robot that will outperform us in intellectual and physical abilites.

  2. Eric hit it on the head when he said, "Science fiction is now becoming Science Fact" but there is still a long road ahead in order for social robotics to be integrated into every day. Yes we have a roomba and robotic pets to due one chore or keep us entertained. But like the roomba it is a chore robot, and is only programed to do one task and not interact with the humans like we picture C-3P0 doing. But in labs, the engineering of the actual robots and becoming more human like to be excepted as a social part of life has been growing exponentially, how ever the brain/AI seems to be holding back implementing it to a higher degree. But even if we do perfect AI and instill them into robots, and they become part of the "science fact" it will take a generation it seems to be accepted and fully integrated like such advancements in technology has shown in the past. Once its set in full motion I definitely believe Social Robotic’s will be part of every humans day to day ritual. Lets take Siri for example, just one step after another and instead of talking to a phone I will be talking to a smart house/ or robot maid like the Jetsons.

  3. Being that I also helped out during the workshop I completely agree with Eric’s view of the workshop. The interactions that these children had with the robots is a rewarding experience within itself. I sincerely believe that introducing these kids to the concept of social robotics will really open their eyes to the future. The fact is that these eighth grade kids are growing up in an age of technological advancement. They are seeing the fruition of technology that people like Steve Jobs have helped create. I have even seen kids that do not understand the concept of a computer that is not touch sensitive. Things like the iPod and tablets give the next generation the tools, and technology necessary to propel our idea of social robotics even further. Rather than our limited view of the here and now of robotics, and when the torch is passed to their generation, they will have the drive and experience to push robotics into a new more social age.

  4. One need only search youtube to see the truth in this post. The Japanese are often associated with robotics; I have seen their creations play musical instruments (and quite well for that matter), sing, dance and apologize for bumping into eachother. Movies like iRobot (minus the rampaging androids…hopefully) may very well be the future of humanity. I’ve heard of some people talking to their cars but i’ve never heard of cars talking to people (GPS dosen’t count…yet). But i wouldn’t be surprised if years from now people are having whole conversations with the technology with.

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