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robohub.org-robots_on_tourAs a robot animator I can attest to the fact that robots don’t “need” heads to be treated as social entities. Research has shown that people will befriend a stick as long as it moves properly [1].

We have a long-standing habit of anthropomorphizing things that aren’t human by attributing to them human-level personality traits or internal motivations based on cognitive-affective architectures that just aren’t there. Animators have relied on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief and, in essence, co-animate things into existence: from a sack of flour to a magic broom. It’s possible to incorporate the user’s willingness to bring a robot to life by appropriately setting expectations and being acutely aware of how the context of interaction affects possible outcomes.

In human lifeforms, a head usually circumscribes a face, whereas in a robot a face can be placed anywhere. Although wonderfully complex, in high degree of freedom (DOF) robot heads, the facial muscles can be challenging to orchestrate with sufficient timing precision. If your robot design facilitates expression through the careful control of the quality of motion rendered, a head isn’t necessary in order to communicate essential non-verbal cues. As long as you consider a means for revealing the robot’s internal state, a head simply isn’t needed. A robot’s intentions can be conveyed through expressive motion and sound regardless of its form or body configuration.

[1] Harris, J., & Sharlin, E. (2011, July). Exploring the affect of abstract motion in social human-robot interaction. In RO-MAN, 2011 IEEE (pp. 441-448). IEEE.

 

Robohub.org-Kuka_mobileI don’t know about you, but if something has a head I assume it has thoughts. When watching a movie I stare at the character’s face because I want to know what they feel. So for me a head’s a pretty important thing. If I’m going to talk with a robot I’d like it to have some kind of discernable head. It’s a useful thing if you want people to have warm fuzzy feelings about your robot. Its useful if people are interfacing with the robot.

Simply: a head allows a face, and a face allows interface.

So a head’s only needed if the robot has to interface with people (or other headed animals, say). A head is a design feature but the main function of an android is its form: it has to look like humans. Giving it a head is a function-follows-form decision. Wasn’t it Hunter S. Thompson who wrote, “Kill the head and the body will die?” Well, this should not be the case for military robots. The beheaded design can be improved. Saying that all robots need to have faces is like saying all animals need to have gills. For the deadly, dangerous, and downright dastardly work that robots today need to perform, like gastro-intestinal surgery, or military surveillance, a head won’t do much more than get stuck or blown off.

A head, like hands or a face, is a design decision that’s best left for the robots working directly with humans.

Robohub.org-Roboy-headThe obvious answer to this question is “No: there are lots of robots without heads.” It’s not even clear that social robots necessarily require a head, as even mundane robots like the Roomba are anthropomorphized (taking on human-like qualities) without a head. A follow-up question might be, “How are heads useful?” For humans, the reasons are apparent: food intake, a vessel for our brain, a locus for sensors (eyes and ears), and high-bandwidth communication via expression. What about for robots …?

  • Food intake: Probably not.
  • Computational storage: Again, probably not.
  • Location for sensors: Indeed, the apex of a robot is a natural, obstacle-free vantage point for non-contact sensors. But a “head” form factor is not a strict requirement.
  • Emotion and expression: Ah, the real meat of this question… “Do robots need to express emotion?”

This is a funny question to ask someone who once (in)famously advocated for either (A) extremely utilitarian designs: “I want my eventual home robot to be as unobtrusive as a trashcan or dishwasher”, or (B) designs unconstrained by the human form factor: “Why not give robots lots of arms (or only one)? Why impose human-like joint limits, arm configurations, and sensing? We can design our own mechanical lifeforms!”

My views have softened a bit over time. Early (expensive) general-purpose home robots will almost certainly have humanoid characteristics and have heads with the ability to express emotions (i.e. be social) — if nothing else, to appeal to the paying masses. And these robots will be useful: doing my laundry, cleaning my dishes, and cooking my meals. In the early attempts, I will still find their shallow attempts at emotion mundane and I will probably detest the sales pitches about “AI” and “robots that feel.” But as the emotional expressions become more natural and nuanced, and the robots become more capable, I will probably warm up to the idea myself.

TL;DR: No, many robots do not need heads. Even social robots may not need heads, but (whether I want them to or not) they probably will, because paying consumers will expect it.



inVia Robotics: Product-Picking Robots for the Warehouse
October 7, 2019


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