Elizabeth Croft: Robots Could Have Feelings Too

Petti Fong Is it insulting to hear people say it takes a woman to build a more human robot?

Elizabeth Croft I don’t want to get hung up on whether it takes a woman to do this. IQ in a group setting goes up when you have gender diversity, racial diversity. We need all of those brains to come up with good solutions.

pf But you’ve said you want to see many more women in engineering.

ec When you ask girls what they want to do, they always say they want to make the world a better place, do something about the environment, be in health care. They’re interested in making better stuff. That’s engineering.

pf So engineering, at least around robot building, goes well beyond mechanics.

ec Take the give and take of hand-over motions. We began with humans, monitoring the behaviour of the giver and the receiver, and then teaching the robot how to be a good giver and a good receiver. In our experiment, we set the receiver’s release threshold at different levels: when the threshold was too low, people thought the robot was careless. That last bit of hold before it pulled away made people think the robot really had the object. These cues and behaviours can give the sense that the robot has social graces.

pf Is that the goal? Gracious robots?

ec Let’s say you and I both want the kitchen knife. I reach for it and I see you reaching for it. I pull back. We tried to replicate that hesitation cue with robots, then refined it. That kind of act makes people feel more comfortable around them.

pf What has being around humans taught you about robots?

ec Everything. When we’re designing our robots, we’re not designing them to interact with other robots. We’re designing them to interact with humans. That example with a hand-over—I had no idea how people handed stuff over. You have to think about it and once you realize it, you see things differently.

pf What has being around robots taught you about humans?

ec Think about how far we have to go to create robots that have personality and capabilities. It makes you aware of just how complex people are—how unpredictable we can be, how predictable. Being around robots has increased my wonder of how amazing humans are.

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