Aug 22, 2018

Robot designers are bowing to their bots' botness

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.
  •, 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 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

History's largest lockdown leaves Indian workers stranded, afraid

A migrant worker on the move with his child, in Gurugram, India. Photo: Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty

Few moments better capture the world into which we've slipped than the decision of one man to order 1.4 billion into lockdown.

Why it matters: India’s three-week lockdown is the largest ever attempted, and it sparked South Asia's greatest migration since partition in 1947. While the economic effects could be devastating, the public health crisis it's intended to fend off could be more destructive still.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 782,319 — Total deaths: 37,582 — Total recoveries: 164,565.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in confirmed cases. Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 161,807 — Total deaths: 2,953 — Total recoveries: 5,595.
  3. Federal government latest: The White House will extend its social distancing guidelines until April 30.
  4. State updates: Rural-state governors say testing is still inadequate, contradicting Trump — Virginia, Maryland and D.C. issue stay-at-home orders to residents, joining 28 other states.
  5. Business latest: Ford and General Electric aim to make 50,000 ventilators in 100 days.
  6. In photos: Navy hospital ship arrives in Manhattan.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

First U.S. service member dies from coronavirus

Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

The Pentagon on Monday announced the death of a member of the New Jersey National Guard who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: It's the first U.S. service member — active, reserve or Guard — to die from the virus, according to the Pentagon. The guardsman passed away on Saturday after being hospitalized for the novel coronavirus on March 21.

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