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Why Robots That Are Made To Look Like Human Make Them Feel Uneasy

People who design machines to work with humans do keep the uncanny valley in mind as they think about the look of a robot.

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Robots
New assistive robot to help elderly live independently. Pixabay

An increasing number of robots are being created and designed to work side by side with humans, in a human environment. That means robots have to be structured like a person, because some of them have to walk and sit like a person. Some robots are even being designed to look human.

But seeing an android, a robot that looks human, can make some people uneasy. That growing unsettling feeling or phenomenon as robots begin to look more like human beings is called the “uncanny valley.”

Even researchers who work on robots are not immune to it.

“I know how they work. I know they’re just machines, but something about something that looks like a person but doesn’t quite move like a person is disturbing,” said Jonathan Gratch, director for virtual human research at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies.

Gratch, who is a research professor of computer science and psychology, studies human-computer interaction.

He said there are many thoughts behind why the uncanny valley exists. One explanation is that it’s biological. People are hardwired to recognize when something seems wrong.

“In my research, I study emotion and how we use emotional cues to read each other’s minds, and I think a lot of the issue for me is if you try to make something very realistic, then you start trying to read all this information into what it’s portraying, and it is not the right information. So, it just communicates something is off. Something is wrong with this interaction,” Gratch said.

Another theory is that a robot that looks too human threatens what it means to be human.

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A robot head is covered by Hanson Robotics’ skin, in Hong Kong. VOA

“Initially, humans were seen as the only intelligent entity. And now, we know more and more that animals can do many of the things that we do, build tools. We know machines are starting to become intelligent. We hold on to the fact that we’re emotional, but now these machines are starting to be emotional as well, which is perhaps a threat. So, where does that lead people?” Gratch explained.

A person’s religious beliefs and culture may also play into how an android is perceived, he suggested.

“In the Western tradition, coming from Christianity, humans are unique, perhaps uniquely possessing a soul. Whereas in Japanese Shinto culture, souls live everywhere, in rocks and machines,” Gratch said.

John Rebula is a postdoctoral fellow at USC and is working on making a humanoid robot walk like a person by being more coordinated and balanced. Applications include the ability to walk up a flight of stairs and sit in a chair made for a person. He said the robot’s face is not necessary and is clearly cosmetic.

Technology, robot
The mock killer robot was displayed in London in April 2013 during the launching of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which calls for the ban of lethal robot weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention. (VOA)

“We really do think of these as research machines that we’re ripping apart and putting back together, ripping apart and putting back together. And so, it’s very easy for us to leave off the cosmetic bits,” Rebula said.

His robot does have cartoon-like eyes, ears and a nose. It could be considered cute. However, if it looked more human, Rebula said he would not necessarily want to be in the lab with it all the time.

“We have lots of late nights in labs. You start yelling at the robot a little bit as it is — ‘Oh, why aren’t you working?’ I don’t necessarily, myself, need that extra layer of weird,” Rebula said.

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People who design machines to work with humans do keep the uncanny valley in mind as they think about the look of a robot, and how widely it will be accepted by humans. (VOA)

Next Story

Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal.

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Amazon
New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (2nd-L) speaks during a press conference in Gordon Triangle Park in the Queens borough of New York, following Amazon's announcement it would abandon its proposed headquarters for the area, Feb. 14, 2019. VOA

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

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Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials. Pixabay

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

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Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Pixabay

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

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Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.” (VOA)