Would You Let a Robot Watch You Undress?

Let's face it, we all need a break from talking about this god-awful shutdown (acknowledging, of course, that the best break of all would be to end the damn thing). In that spirit, via Technology Review, here's an interesting study out of Georgia Tech about what kind of robots young and old people are more comfortable with, and how those preferences change depending on what it is we're asking the robots to help us with. Generally, the older people preferred more human-looking robots, while the younger people preferred more, well, robot-looking robots. That would make sense if you assume that the young are more comfortable with technology. But things get interesting when you get into details about what the robots are doing:

Their preferences changed somewhat depending on what the robot was helping with, though. For example, for help in making decisions (like investing), younger people preferred a face with an in-between human/robot look. The study also found that for a robot that could help with personal care (like taking a bath), people surveyed either wanted it to look very robotic to preserve their privacy or extremely human since that would make the robot seem more caring or trustworthy. Nobody seemed to care what a robot that helped with chores looked like, however.

The privacy issue is an interesting one. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has caught my dog watching me get undressed and wondered, "What's going on in that little head of yours?" Before long, we'll be producing domestic robots as all-around helpers who do not just simple tasks like vacuuming but other jobs that require us to interact more closely with them. At that point, it's going to require some thoughtful design to strike the proper balance between the mechanical and the organic-seeming, and just making them look as human as we can is obviously not going to be the answer. There are going to be a whole complicated new set of emotions and interactions we'll have to navigate our way through. I wouldn't be surprised if in the early stages there are some product misfires, in which a company produces what seems like a fantastic new domestic robot, but that people end up despising once it gets into their homes for some reason that looks completely logical in retrospect but that no one managed to anticipate.

One of my favorite domestic robots from recent sci-fi is Serge from the fine but largely overlooked Battlestar Gallactica spinoff series Caprica. His soft, bulbous design and gentle voice make him friendly and just anthropomorphize-able enough to like without becoming weird (he even had a Twitter account, which sadly went dark when the show was ruthlessly cancelled). That seemed to achieve a good balance: a robot that's attractive to look at and expresses a simple but real personality, but that you won't feel bad about leaving alone when you go on vacation. And if it can do the laundry and clean the bathrooms, it can't come too soon.

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