Who is really in control? Semi-autonomous robot sheds light on the psychology of communication between machine and user

It has long been known that people sympathize with the machines or computer representations they use. Whether it’s driving a car or controlling an avatar in a video game, people are more likely to identify with something they think is being controlled. However, it is still unclear how the relationships represented in the autonomous behavior of robots affect their operators. Now, Japanese researchers have found that when a person controls only part of the body of a semi-autonomous robot, they are affected by the “relationships” expressed by the robot.

Researchers at Osaka University’s Department of Systems Innovation tested the psychological impact of remote use of certain semi-autonomous robots on humans. These “telepresence” robots are designed to capture the human voice and mannerisms to alleviate labor shortages and minimize travel costs. For example, a human operator can control his voice, and body movements are automatically processed by a computer. “Semi-autonomous robots have shown potential for practical applications in which autonomous robot action and human teleoperation are used together to perform complex tasks. A system that combines the “intentions” of different agents, such as an algorithm and a human user, that are shared to control a single robot is called collaborative control,” explains first author Tomonori Kubota.

During the experiment, the team investigated whether the attitude of a teleoperator would more closely match the position of a semi-autonomous robot when controlling a part of the robot’s body. Previously, the participants in the experiment were asked to classify a set of 10 paintings. Then they were assigned one of three humanoid conditions for controlling the robot. Either they controlled the movement of the robot’s arm, its ability to smile, or they didn’t control the robot at all. They were then shown the android talking to another participant who was actually collaborating with the experimenters. The android recommended the painting that came in sixth place, and the experimenters noted how much this influenced the robot operator’s subsequent rating of that painting. “This study showed that when a human uses a body part of an android robot that interacts autonomously with a human, the human attitude closely matches that of the robot,” says lead author Hiroshi Ishiguro.

This research shows that in future implementations of “human-robot collaboration”, designers need to be aware of how operators can be influenced by their role with subconscious attitude changes.

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Material provided by Osaka University. Note. Content can be changed in style and length.

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