James Randerson

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

The goal of the project: to improve the way the emerging robots interact with humans

London: In a nondescript house somewhere near Hatfield, England, something that could pass for any student digs, groups of men and women have been rehearsing for the future. In a year-long series of experiments, scientists and engineers are studying how people behave around the building's sole permanent resident, a 120-cm-tall, silver-headed robot with sinister-looking gripping claws.

Their goal is to improve the way robots interact with people: everything from what the machines should look like to how they should behave.

And the early evidence from inside the Robot House is that our utopian vision of a future of splendid idleness may be clouded by a distinct unease in the company of our robot servants.

"It is not enough that the robot is in your house and doing different things," says Kerstin Deutenhahn, an expert in human-robot interaction at the University of Hertfordshire. "That same robot should also be able to perform this behaviour in a way that is acceptable and comfortable to people."

Looking for relief

The idea is to look ahead to the day when silicon-brained home-helps have relieved us of the burden of household chores and work out which robot behaviours people like and which distress us. What should the robot look like? How should it move? How should it attract our attention?

The researchers have resisted the temptation to give the robot a name because they do not want the volunteers in their experiments to feel too familiar with it. "Once you name them then people will put gender associations on them, which is a big problem," says researcher Kheng Lee Koay. It moves on three wheels and can stop itself bumping into walls using devices that emit a rapid-fire stream of sonar pulses. By analysing the echoes from its surroundings, rather like a bat surveying its environment, it can work out whether it is heading for a collision with a nearby object. But its sonar pulses cannot tell the machine that people get really squeamish when it creeps up behind them.

A typical experiment involves sitting a volunteer down, so that the robot is slightly taller, and sending the machine on a pre-programmed approach route. The volunteers then indicate when they feel the robot has come uncomfortably close.