Robots Make People Uncomfortable, Experts Say

We don't want human copies, we want... 'Robots'

Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey finds that people are still uncomfortable around robots. 
  • People are nervous about robots and AI potentially taking their jobs. 
  • Making robots that seem friendlier is a design challenge for manufacturers.
A pait of toy robots on the corner of a desk.
Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty Images

Robots need to get friendlier if they are going to win the trust of humans, experts say. 

A new survey finds that almost all types of robots still rank poorly by people in terms of comfort. The study by AI software company Myplanet showed that drones and human-shaped robots were among people’s pet peeves. Manufacturers need to work harder to combat this robot prejudice. 

"One of the first and most pervasive trends we noticed in our research was a strong dislike for when our tech tries to be too 'human,'" Myplanet founder and CEO Jason Cottrell said in an email interview.

"Human-looking robots, chatbots, or voice assistants that converse too naturally, or even when robots are put in positions that lean too much on what we generally take to be human traits like empathy, are all met with a collective consumer cold shoulder."

Human-Shaped Robots Need Not Apply

Robots need an image makeover, the survey found. Some people (35%) were comfortable with shelving robots, but only 24% of users said they were comfortable with drones.

When people were shown various pictures of package delivery robots, 29% preferred robots that looked like wheeled wagons, while only 24% were comfortable with human-shaped robots.  

Automatons get a bad rap that’s not backed up by facts, Cottrell said. "Both hearing about and experiencing the tech firsthand can go a long way in raising consumer comfort," he added.

If you’re using a robot, it’s okay, even good, for it to seem like a robot.

"Drones have had limited exposure for most people, still. Bad press has dogged them, including bans on personal drone usage and negative connotations relating to everything from corporate overreach to weapons."

People are nervous about robots and AI potentially taking their jobs, Andreas Koenig, CEO of ProGlove, which designs products that augment human workers and allow them to work side-by-side with robots, said in an email interview. 

But Koenig said that robots aren’t going to replace people anytime soon. "A factory run by robots alone will remain an illusion for the foreseeable future," he added.

"The human worker brings indispensable value to the shop floor. What we need to do is promote human-machine collaboration, though."

Tackling the Friendly Robot Challenge

Making robots that seem friendlier is a challenge for manufacturers. Take, for example, the Boston Dynamics robot dog, which elicits nervous chuckles from many people.

By contrast, robot dog Koda was designed with human feelings in mind. 

"When KODA was designed, the most important decision we made was to give it a head," John Suit, advising chief technology officer at KODA, said in an email interview. "It has eyes, it can emote—its personality is focused on care and compassion."

The worst thing a robot can do is pretend to seem human, Cottrell said. "If you’re using a robot, it’s okay, even good, for it to seem like a robot," he added.

Illustration of a large robot chasing people.
Malte Mueller / Getty Images

"Consumers are much more at ease with technology that’s 'honest' about what it is."

How robots are designed is key, Dor Skuler, the CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, which makes companion robots for the elderly, said in an interview. His company put in over 20,000 days of testing in which its robots lived at people's homes for at least 100 days.

All that testing was to make sure the company’s robots would "create a more comfortable and seamless relationship with humans," he added. 

Skuler said his favorite robot design is the Vector from Anki. "I think they navigated the challenges mentioned above brilliantly and created a lovable persona in a small fun and engaging form factor," he added. 

Robot manufacturers need to convince people that automatons can help rather than replace them, Cottrell said. "People are impressed by what the Boston Robotics robots can do, but they aren’t necessarily keen to interact with them," he added.

"What they do want is assistance in reaching items off the top shelf in the store, or in watering vast tracts of farmland, or in distributing medication across a vast hospital network."

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