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Illustration of a baby seal being stroked by an older man half its size with an illustrated orange hand in the background.

“We Talk About Robotics as Though It Were off in the Future”

Robots and people will interact more and more closely in the future. Informatics scientist Selma Šabanović of Indiana University even makes the case that robotics has long been part and parcel of our daily life – only it is not obvious to us. A conversation about emotions and cultural perspectives, and why vacuum robots, of all things, have proven so successful.

Dr. Šabanović, what is a robot? Where does being a robot begin?

Dr. Selma Šabanović: That is the question that people are constantly asking, and every expert has a slightly different answer. To me, it has something to do with embodiment, that is a body that interacts physically. Robots can perceive their environments and interact with them. This would not include smart speakers, for example. They do have artificial intelligence, but they do not move, whereas a social robot such as “Jibo” can interact verbally, but it can also move spatially, and that motion qualifies as an interaction with the environment.

Smart speakers such as Alexa and Echo can turn lights on or adjust window blinds.

That's right. In that sense, as part of a smart home, they could qualify as robots.

Where does the difference begin between automation and robotics?

At the point where the machine perceives its environment and reacts to it adaptively. Industrial robots that are fully pre-programmed to process the same part at the same location are considered automation. But as soon as they have sensors and are programmed to react dynamically to sensor input, they become robots. The sensors make it possible for machines to plan and carry out actions in response to changes in their environment.


Dr. Selma Šabanović

Portrait of robotics professor Selma Sabanovic

Selma Šabanović is an associate professor of informatics and cognitive science at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States. She directs IU’s R-House Human-Robot Interaction Lab, which she founded. Her research has combined the study of the design and use of interactive, assistive robots as well as their consequences. Šabanović is editor-in-chief of the magazine “ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction” and co-author of the book “Human-Robot Interaction: An Introduction.” The book published in Germany by Hanser in 2020 is especially geared to students and anyone who wants to develop an overview of the state of research. It deals with sub-fields ranging from mechanics to ethical questions.

What about an autonomous car?

That’s a robot as well. Think about parking assistants or cruise control. Those are functions that meet all the parameters for robotics. The car steers on its own, relying on its own sensors. To be honest, this is very exciting. We often talk about robotics as though it were off in the future. If something already exists, we accept it as a given. We associate robots with something futuristic, but in some sense we already interact with robots in our everyday life.

We often get the feeling that people fear robots. Where does that come from?

The fear was around before the term “robot” emerged. There are old myths about machines that looked so human that they fooled us. This has to do with a central question that concerns us as human beings: What does it mean to be human? What is it linked to – appearance, behavior, the soul? And isn’t the human body just a machine? This has been a preoccupation down to the present.

And then there is the issue of job losses.

Yes. Whenever we invent machines, we expect they will change the way we work. But actually, these concerns are often more related to the way technology is integrated into society. In Western industrialized countries, automation has led to layoffs. In Japan, on the other hand, where the principle of lifelong employment in one company was still in force not so long ago, workers have been retrained. That was one difference. We can feel its impact even today.


But as soon as they have sensors, they become robots. Only sensors give machines the ability to plan and execute.

In the way that robots are viewed more positively in Japan?

Think about the high-profile representatives in pop culture. In the West, they are characters like the Terminator. In Japan, it tends to be characters like the android Astro Boy who confront war and injustice. That doesn’t mean that everyone in Japan views robotics positively. But there are differences in the way stories and archetypes have been established in the public consciousness.

So are the global differences rooted in different areas of application?

It often has to do with research funding. In the United States, for example, the Army is investing a great deal in robotics. In Japan, it was initially industry, and this led to greater progress in the consumer sector. Overall, the growth in the service segments has not been as rapid as people expected. The vacuum robot Roomba is a success story, but it has been a relatively unique example.

Why, of all things, a vacuum robot?

Because it has clearly defined uses. It does what it is supposed to do, and its users do not expect its performance to be highly advanced. The lesson for every robot developer is where can existing technical capabilities be matched up with exactly what people need. Decades ago, people working in logistics had the vision of the robot-controlled “lights-out factory.” That is probably not going to happen.

Instead people and robots work hand-in-hand.

The crucial challenge remains: How to marry a robot’s strengths to those of a human being. Collaboration is the buzzword for the future.

But for that, robots have to learn to interpret humans properly…

Smart speakers often don’t understand children because they speak differently than adults do. At the institute, we now have a research project underway on the use of robots with older people, for example, in caregiving. Seniors also speak and hear differently than younger adults. Engineers and developers have to rethink these issues. Previously, robots had been tested using ten employees in the lab. But the new development may well have totally missed the target audience: When we talk about robot-human interaction, we should pose the right questions at an early stage: What should the robot be able to do? What are the objectives? What are the limits? And what data is the source of the robot’s knowledge? Otherwise, there is the risk that entire social groups will be excluded.


We will have to teach future generations that these machines are not people, even if they simulate emotions!

Do robots need emotions to communicate?

That is an exciting question because we humans continually see emotions in things unconsciously. When a robot is programmed to approach a light source, observers respond with statements like, “Oh, it loves the light!” So if robots show emotion, it helps them with their interactions with humans. A delivery robot that slows down when it approaches you can be seen as exhibiting caution. This may help in certain situations even if robots lack emotions.

Is it a problem to ascribe emotions to robots?

That depends. If older people who are alone attribute emotions to their robot-pet “Paro,” I don’t consider that to be bad. They were designed for that purpose: to have a positive effect, to inspire happiness in others. We reflexively anthropomorphize things. It helps us to be social. But it is a problem, for example, if soldiers anthropomorphize the robots that they send out to dispose of bombs. It will put them in danger. This kind of behavior has been observed. So we are going to have to teach future generations that these machines are not human even if they simulate emotions.


Paro Robots

Illustration of baby seal

The Paro is a robot resembling a baby seal whose sensors recognize when it is held or petted. It was developed in Japan around 30 years ago. The Paro reacts with sounds and movement. This type of interaction can be used for therapeutic purposes, for example in the treatment of dementia patients. Paro thus picks up on the positive experiences known from animal-assisted therapy. Studies show that it not only decreases feelings of loneliness, but stimulates connections between nursing home residents. It has been available in Japan since 2006 and in the United States since 2009. In Germany, some nursing homes rely on its services.

Does our society have a misconception about the future of robots?

There are very different conceptions of their future, in any case. One is shaped by films and books. A future in which robots wander around as individuals. But robots are quite limited at this point. The opening question, where we began the conversation, suggests a complex challenge: the interaction with the environment. The notion of robots being able to wander around in human form is still a long way off. The same is true for robotic interactions with the countless uncertainties in an urban environment. But there is a future where robotic technology will be implemented in everyday things, and it is practically here. We don’t have robots like those in the film “I, Robot.” But we have delivery robots – they are real. And we have robotic technologies incorporated in everyday devices.

What is your vision for robots’ future?

Brighter, hopefully. It is for the focus to be on people and society. What do we want to accomplish with the technology? This is important so we can base laws and rules on that vision. And how can robotics help us improve our lives? Socially, economically and psychologically. Technology should do that. It should not be an end in itself.

This article originally appeared in ESSENTIAL, Freudenberg Sealing Technologies’ corporate magazine that covers trends, industries and new ideas. To read more stories like this, click here.

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