Confused robot clutching head

Hapless robots are more appealing to humans, study finds

Image credit: Dreamstime

According to a study from the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Salzberg, Austria, humans prefer interacting with faulty robots significantly more than with robots which function perfectly.

Socially inept robots such as the fussy C-3PO, the obsolete Wall-E, the unhospitable Marvin the Paranoid Android and the clumsy Baymax are among the best-loved characters in science fiction.

However, social robots – robots intended for interaction with humans – are intended to be smooth, high-functioning beings, with roboticists working hard to teach their machines to read increasingly subtle social cues and react accordingly.

Despite progress in the field, social robots are given to frequent errors and cannot adhere to the strict, complex, culturally-specific codes of conduct that humans follow almost instinctively.

“Our results show that decoding a human’s social signals can help the [social] robot understand that there is an error and subsequently react accordingly,” said Nicole Mirnig, a PhD student at the University of Salzburg.

“We suppose that faulty instances of human-robot interaction are full with knowledge that can help us further improve the interactional quality in new dimensions. We think that because most research focuses on perfect interaction, many potentially crucial aspects are overlooked.”

In order to understand how humans react to robots making social errors, the researchers deliberately programmed faulty behaviour into a humanoid robot and then let participants interact with it.

Through interviews and participant feedback, the researchers found that faulty robots were not perceived as particularly unintelligent or inhuman and were, in fact, considered much more likeable than their well-functioning counterparts. It is possible that humanoid robots with near-human conversational skills risk drifting into the dreaded uncanny valley.

“Our results showed that the participants liked the faulty robot significantly more than the flawless one. This finding confirms the Pratfall Effect, which states that people’s attractiveness increases when they make a mistake,” Mirnig explained.

Mirnig hopes that exploring faulty interaction could allow for human-robot interaction to be refined; for instance, a robot recognising a fault could acknowledge the problem.

“Studying the sources of imperfect robot behaviour will lead to more believable robot characters and more natural interaction”, she concluded.

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