We Prefer Robots, That Wag Their Tails

Humans like looking at each other’s faces. If we want to figure out if someone’s happy or sad we get our clues from the face. Robot researchers tell us that robots, are different.

Canadian student Ashish Singh and professor James E. Young have looked at whether humans can accurately figure out the “feelings” of a robot vacuum cleaner. They took a standard iRobot Roomba, the best known brand of home vacuum robot and gave it a fluffy tail that wags – just like a dog.

We’re pretty sure that iRobot vacuums don’t have feelings but Singh’s research shows that once we see the robots wagging their tails, in a happy family-pet way we understand that they’re working as planned.

The Manitoba University student says that a dog-like tail “seemed to be a nice, clear choice—even people without dogs or cats may be able to read some tail motions, so we decided to formally investigate that.”

Professor Young compared the idea of looking at a screen to find out how the robot’s operating versus seeing a familiar visual signal, like the tail wagging, “With a dog tail that projects a robot’s state, you could be preparing dinner and just see the robot going by from the corner of your eye,” he said. “That would let you quickly know how the robot is doing, whereas a screen would probably require training to understand and sound would be intrusive.”

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It turns out, according to the team’s research, that whether we own pets or not, we can all identify whether a robot is happy or not, just by how it wags its tail. Professor Young’s team went on to look at how we would feel about the next generation of robots, humanoids if they had tails. It turns out that we may not want our robots to be that human, after all.

Andy O'Donoghue

Andy O'Donoghue talks about technology, some say, too much.