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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In a move toward humility, robot designers are increasingly shunning the Westworld dream of machines whose behavior is indistinguishable from people's, and opting for greater honesty about what's truly possible now.

Why it matters: When people assume a machine can do what a human does, they can be disappointed at best — and at worst get hurt. Visualizations, explanations and signals that show how robots are actually able to interact can better set expectations, and build the right amount of trust.

Societal acceptance is the make-or-break issue. "We don't want to build another Google Glass that's going to be rejected by society," Ali Kashani, head of R&D at Postmates, a delivery company that uses sidewalk bots, tells Axios.

Autonomous vehicles are at the front lines of the tension between aping humans and highlighting a bot’s bot-ness.

  • The blend-in approach would tuck away a car’s sensors and cameras and have the car emulate human driving styles. But people break driving laws regularly, which manufacturers want to avoid.
  • Drive.ai, a self-driving startup, is using the opposite tack, deploying fluorescent-orange autonomous Nissan vans in the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco. They call attention to themselves and encourage drivers and pedestrians to treat them cautiously, the company's CEO, Sameep Tandon, told Axios recently.
  • Electronic panels adorn the outside of the Drive.ai vans, displaying messages like "Waiting for you" that tell pedestrians it's safe to cross, thus replacing the absent driver's nod or wave.

On the factory floor, it’s useful for workers to understand what the enormous, super-powerful robots next to them can and can’t see or do.

  • In order to feel comfortable, a person needs a mental model of the bot's capabilities, said Clara Vu, VP of engineering at Veo Robotics. So robots using Veo's system come with a monitor displaying the bot's perception of its surroundings, and its prediction of how it and the humans around it can move in the coming seconds.
  • The interior of many autonomous vehicles include similar visualizations, reassuring passengers that yes, it does see the semi taking a left across the intersection.

The big picture: At the other extreme, people sometimes initially put too much trust in a car's capabilities, said David Sirkin, an engineer and interaction-design researcher at Stanford.

  • "If a car starts behaving like a person in a few ways, we're going to start expecting it to behave like people do" all the time, Sirkin said. "Except it can't."
  • A mismatch of expectations and reality can be dangerous. Take, for example, the proliferation of YouTube videos showing early Tesla owners doing all manner of unsafe things inside their cars. In Sirkin’s own research, test subjects have fallen asleep while monitoring a self-driving car in high-fidelity simulations.

It's one thing to get people to understand and anticipate robots on public roads, and another entirely when they occupy much more intimate sidewalks.

  • We already have mental models for how cars should drive but no frame of reference for small, wheeled tubs that navigate foot traffic on their own.
  • Sidewalk robots should stay out of people's way, said Postmates' Kashani. But since they’ll inevitably attract attention, they would benefit from interesting, cute, or surprising design touches like the expressive eyes on the Kiwi bots that trundle through Berkeley.

The big question: Can we set societal expectations for how we want robots to act before they become a part of daily life?

  • "Autonomy is coming towards us. But we don't know how well and how fast," said Sirkin. "We might have the technology available before we have resolved the societal issues."

Go deeper

Prosecutors begin closing arguments in Chauvin trial

Steve Schleicher, an attorney for the prosecution in Derek Chauvin's trial, began closing arguments on Monday by describing in detail George Floyd's last moments — crying out for help and surrounded by strangers, as Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

Why it matters: The jury's verdict in Chauvin's murder trial, seen by advocates as one of the most crucial civil rights cases in decades, will reverberate across the country and have major implications in the fight for racial justice.

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
4 hours ago - Sports

European soccer is at war

Liverpool celebrating its 2019 Champions League victory. Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Europe's biggest soccer clubs have established The Super League, a new midweek tournament that would compete with — and threaten the very existence of — the Champions League.

Why it matters: This new league, set to start in 2023, "would bring about the most significant restructuring of elite European soccer since the 1950s, and could herald the largest transfer of wealth to a small set of teams in modern sports history," writes NYT's Tariq Panja.

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

2021's expected earnings blowout begins

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Photo: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

First-quarter earnings so far have been very strong, outpacing even the rosy expectations from Wall Street and that's a trend that's expected to continue for all of 2021. S&P 500 companies are on pace for one of the best quarters of positive earnings surprises on record, according to FactSet.

Why it matters: The results show that not only has the earnings recession ended for U.S. companies, but firms are performing better than expected and the economy may be justifying all the hype.

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