Boston Dynamics is a company well-known for manufacturing autonomous robots that can dance, tackle obstacle courses, or even decorate for the holidays just like humans. However, some of their machines, such as the robot dog Spot, also have “real jobs.”
For instance, Spot performs important, yet potentially dangerous operations for humans, such as inspections at construction and manufacturing sites, as well as at facilities like oil rigs and nuclear plants.
Thus, as robots become a more integral part of society, questions about how people and robots will interact in real life become increasingly important.
Recently, a team of scientists from the University of Texas at Austin started a project aiming to clarify these issues. Initiated in 2021, the Living and Working with Robots project focuses on examining how robots integrate with society and how communities might react to these new developments.
According to project leader Luis Sentis, a professor at UT Texas’ Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, the current situation could be compared with the introduction of the automobile.
While the earliest models were cleaner than the horses they replaced and moved at about the same speed, within less than 20 years, cars were going twice at fast, roads and freeway systems grew, and cities were fundamentally transformed.
“Maybe if companies had information on comfort levels and reaction of communities to cars from a team of scientists, transportation today would be different,” Sentis said.
“We discuss robots monitoring buildings, moving around and supplying things, and supporting construction. Imagine the possibilities if that happens in big numbers. You want to have a study and reach convergence about the approach to providing information so we can inform companies and universities and institutions about what is the right way to deploy these things in the future.”
Since Spot – a robot rooted in NSF-funded research in the mid-1990s by Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert – will be used to make deliveries at university libraries and other facilities, it will be walking several miles per day and potentially encountering hundreds of people. Thus, collecting data on the community encounters and reactions to the robots is critical to understand how such groundbreaking technologies may impact humans.
The experts will take into account a number of variables, including the size and type of the robot, the location of the encounter (e.g. indoors or outdoors), the time of the encounter (e.g. day or night), the number of people encountered, or whether the encounter occurs during a time of high stress on campus, such as exam week.
“Robots can be scary in an empty corridor at night,” Sentis said. “We are working on how to make them noticeable, such as beeps and lights. Sometimes we may show the face of the person that is supervising the robot. We want people to know that there is a person behind it, because we want to learn what makes robots useful and wanted.”
Although pairs of robots will work together, they will not be “off leash.” Instead, observers will monitor them as they move around the campus, using virtual reality headsets to see through the robots’ eyes.
These observers will also provide data for the project, through recordings of their brain activity and stress levels. This could offer new insights into how humans are affected by working with autonomous robots and how they take decisions while remaining focused on their tasks.
The scientists also hope that their project will help specific college, graduate, and professional courses which will be needed as robots become more ubiquitous in society.
“We want to create a convergent data approach and a common approach across all disciplines and create materials for students and professionals. I teach human-centered robotics, which is normally a very technical course,” said Sentis.
“This year, I have people from the School of Information and the School of Urban Design and Smart Cities and incorporate new findings in these areas.”
“I don’t want to mentor scientists and engineers that are so attracted to the technology that they can’t see the damage or the benefit. I want them to open up and see what the effect on society is.”