Robotics has come a long way baby. We live in a world where robots are a part of our everyday lives. They make the gadgets we use and entertain adults and children alike. What we hope for advancement in (or secretly fear) are androids, robots created to seem “human” in the looks or actions. The progress is almost startling when considering robots like Asimo, or even simple chat programs like Cleverbot, the disturbing lovechild of a programmer and a perfect example of robot learning, gathering information from thousands of individual human interactions.
Realistic movement is just part of robotics. Robots like Asimo have very smooth, human like movements. But something in our stomach turns when we see a robot like Big Dog. It’s not the humanity we see in the machine, as it very much looks like what it is, a mechanical animal. But that moment where it slides and rights itself, our brain takes a few moments to catch up with our immediate emotional response. What is it about Big Dog’s stumble that makes it so creepy? It takes longer for us to realize that it’s thinking than it does for the machine to think, lean, shift it’s weight, and get itself back up. It’s movements seem primal and animalistic. It is (ahem) alive.
That whip-smart reaction is what makes robots a little bit more human. But what makes them more comfortably human to us? What is something most people share that makes us feel connected socially? Well, the Three Stooges of course. Or, more specifically, laughter. Ever notice you laugh harder, louder, and longer when you’re surrounded by friends? What is it about being surrounded by people that makes laughter so much easier, and more natural? And why do we feel so awkward when we laugh out loud watching old episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond sitting alone in the dark, curled up with cheese puffs? Clearly laughter is a human-y social bond.
But there are different kinds of laughter. People can quickly identify a nervous or forced laugh. Likewise, we are drawn like moths to light filled warm, genuine laughter. We also note the length of pause before the laughter. The pause can mean a delay on their end, or your lack or wit. Or it can just mean the connection between two people is not quite there.
Maybe the bond between humans and robots can be bridged by mock genuine laughter. It would take a robot that can process humor as fast as Big Dog can process slight slippage on a steep hill. The laughter would have to be warm, and not sound brassy or forced. They would have to overcome the hurdles faced by Data in his awkward laugh, and maybe work with a better algorithm in understanding the punchline. Robot tears might help, as the robot gasps for breath after shooting oil out of it’s nose. And my guess is that model might be slightly more popular than the melancholy Marvin subtype.