News - June 2, 2010

Reporter struggles to relate to a robot-human

by Sean Howell


That was the subject of a May 26 press gathering at the Menlo Park headquarters of Willow Garage, a company that designs ... well, robots.

The company was celebrating the "launch" of a program through which it's sending 11 of its mechanical, two-armed, radar-equipped beasts, worth $400,000 each, to universities and other institutions around the world.

In allowing the universities to tinker with and design software for the robots, the company hopes the program will speed the industry's development. It envisions the "PR2" robots eventually going to work as sort of helpers for the homebound — more "Small Wonder" than "Iron Man." While the software the robots run on is open-source, the company is specifically discouraging military applications.

"We're trying to bring robots out of the factory, and into the real world," President and CEO Steve Cousins said to a room full of about 40 journalists, many of them obviously dispatched from specialized technology magazines and blogs.

Some of the journalists themselves showed up as robots, controlling the contraptions from remote locations. Their faces were visible on monitors affixed to dollies they could wheel around the room. The company initially designed these more rudimentary machines to allow Dallas Goecker, an employee who lives in Indiana, to telecommute.

These robots were spin-offs, not the main event, but were at least as interesting as their more intricate counterparts.

"I had never actually met him, and suddenly here he is, driving around and working on (other robots) with the technician," Mr. Cousins said of Mr. Goecker. "It changed the way he interacted with the company."

Having Mr. Goecker there in robot form is almost like having him there in the flesh, Mr. Cousins said, though he noted that, of course, Mr. Goecker's robot isn't able to partake in some activities around the office, like eating lunch.

As Mr. Cousins spoke, the journalists who were there in robot form maneuvered themselves closer to hear him speak. But it took some effort to remind yourself to heed them; they kept getting edged out of the circle.

I tried to start a conversation with one of the robot people, a woman sitting at a desk in what appeared to be a bedroom (I didn't get her name, or her geographical location). It took her a moment to realize I was trying to talk to her. Because the camera through which she saw the room was attached above the monitor where her face appeared, it looked (to her) as if I was staring at her chest.

I stooped to the level of her monitor, as you would to a child, and did my best to ask good journalistic questions, but it was difficult to hear her voice through the speakers over the din in the room, and her face on the monitor kept freezing, then getting swept up in a digital swirl before re-forming in a different position on the screen.

She said she was having trouble hearing Mr. Cousins over the ambient noise in the room, which might help to explain the look of vague consternation on her face during the reporter huddle. She could see the room pretty well, because the robot had cameras both in the front and in the back, but she was worried about running into people.

As her answers to my questions got longer, the speaker kept cutting out, and I was only able to make out a word here and there. I was also becoming aware that I was standing directly in front of another robot-journalist to my left who was trapped in the crowd, but it didn't seem possible to include him/it in the conversation.

The whole experience was anxiety-inducing, and weirdly intimate: in a room full of people, I was looking into someone's bedroom. Yet the robot also seemed distant. I found myself basically less interested in her/it than I am in your average flesh-and-blood, present-in-the-room human, and felt a little guilty about this, and as a result had to try extra hard to make the necessary non-verbal sympathetic and reassuring signals to communicate that she had my full attention.

I was also trying harder than you might expect to resist an urge to simply walk away, mid-conversation: something it's never occurred to me to do before. It seemed like I could get away with it. But I stuck it out, waited for what seemed like a natural stopping point, and offered some accepted end-of-conversation pleasantry. I snuggled back into the huddle of reporters, my shoulders grazing theirs, happy to be back among my own species.


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