Living with Robots – a human’s guide to Human/Robot Interaction

Picture the scene. A human and a delivery robot are heading in opposite directions down a busy pavement. The human doesn’t notice the small, box-like robot. They come face to face. The robot moves out of the way, and prrrps a jolly tone in acknowledgement. The human walks on, oblivious.

Or a rambler is strolling through a field of wheat with their dog. They are suddenly aware of a robot rolling along zapping weeds, but it stops a distance away from them. It remains still while the dog goes up to sniff it, but when it tries to wee on the robot, it backs away and makes a noise that sounds almost like disgust. The dog, startled, backs away – unharmed by the electric weeding probes, and cautious of this strange box. The rambler tuts at this modern technology and carries on.

Not exactly Hollywood, right? 

No human-killing person-shaped robots. No creepy pseudo-human talking or facial expressions. Just simple, slick, minimal interactions that reassure people, while making it clear that this is robot has a job to do.

This is the reality of our future experience with robotics. Not terminator. Not Alice. Not even Wall-E or Johnny 5. Not scary, not creepy. Maybe a bit cute. But just…. Normal.

Human Robotic Interaction is a field so new you can’t do a degree in it. The rules haven’t been established. There are no government guidelines. There are no agencies offering this as a service. There are just a few companies building robots that are trying to understand the enormous implications of living with robots.

The problem is… more often than not, the people building these robots - even the people who own the companies that are building these robots – are engineers. They are interested in making them do a task. They will make the robots ‘safe’. But what happens when they come across other people is totally peripheral.

Yet the chances are it is going to be those moments that define the success of the robot. Because once you have to interact with an autonomous object, you ascribe it value. You credit it with intelligence, even emotions. So if you have to buy or lease one of them, you won’t be able to help judging its effectiveness on its capacity to interact with you.

On the flip side, if a robot appears to be too dumb, or too scary, or too unpredictable, then people will react badly. Maybe they will complain. And if there are too many complaints, then the adoption of robots will be slowed down, or even stopped altogether. 

In some areas this will be disappointing. In farming, where increasing food production while preserving the soil and reducing emissions and chemicals is vital to feed the world, this could be devastating.

Which is why we at Small Robot Company are getting stuck into this problem now, before the robots are finished. We want our robots to be accepted from day one. We want to work with the government to make sure the UK’s robotics industry is designed to work alongside people, not providing a terrifying alternative.

So, tomorrow we are undertaking a groundbreaking design hackathon with the John Lewis Partnership and leading strategic design consultancy Method, alongside the Turing Institute, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, and Zoa robotics. Working together to create a blueprint for robotics in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Not just for farming, but for all areas where robots will work and encounter humans in the environment. Retail, industrial manufacturing, hospitality, for starters.

As an experience designer, it has long fascinated me how we take the next step, from screens to things. The work of Golden Krishna in exploring user experience in a post-screen world is fascinating, but his world is still one of dumb objects. We are working to deliver autonomous entities that- rightly or wrongly -will be viewed as ‘smart’. And this assumed intelligence has its own challenges.

For instance, how adaptable is a robot? When it comes across a person (or a curious badger) there is a world of difference between bumping into the person until they get out of the way and acknowledging them and stepping aside. One is annoying and potentially dangerous. The other is… nice? Polite? And this is the interaction with a person that is not the user of the robot. This is something that is not even defined in normal user journeys. 

We have to design these behaviours. We have to understand and predict when they will need to be applied. We need to interpret them into code. Then we need to test them and evolve. 

Then we need to wrap up these behaviours into something that reflects the values of the company brand. We need to be able to communicate what it is that makes this set of behaviours better that the other companys. Finally, we need to show legislators that we understand the challenges and opportunities, and pro actively establish a set of industry wide guidelines that will stop random kneejerk legislation throwing a spanner in the works.

This isn’t just building machines, or designing apps. What we are designing here is doing no less than defining the next industrial revolution.

It’s a lot of fun.