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What May Make an Interactive Robot Social?


What makes an interactive robot social? This is a question that is starting to be asked around as robots are becoming more ingrained into society. We’ve got robots now being used in the service industry, social welfare industry, construction industry, healthcare industry, and even the military just to name a few. As they enter more real-world environments, can such robots interact with humans using social skills? With the combined studies and advances in mechanical engineering, computer sciences, technology in robotics, and social robotics research, the chances of having such robots are possible — and these are called social robots.

What are Social Robots?

What May Make an Interactive Robot Social

Not to be confused with socially assistive robots or humanoid robots, social robots are autonomous robots that are designed for the main purpose of interacting with humans. Still programmed with an artificial intelligence system and autonomous systems, social robots differ from other robots in their cognitive processes such as the ability to communicate in a social human-robot interaction.

For a robot to be classified as a social robot, it does not need to take on a humanoid form like Sophia the Humanoid Robot. The primary human characteristics a social robot would be programmed with are social skills that will allow them to form social relationships when socially situated with a human being or even an animal.

In fact, in a study published by Springer International Publishing, the social robot used in finding out what makes an interactive robot social was not human-like at all in terms of its physical characteristics. The social robot, PeopleBot, was human-like in height but aside from that, it does not resemble human beings in any other way.

As far as body movements that are human-like go, the PeopleBot social robot had a 5-degree range of freedom for its “arms” and a four-fingered hand that can make pointing gestures. Although this social robot did not have facial expressions similar to human beings, it was socially intelligent enough to engage in verbal communication in human likeness due to a pre-recording of a human voice.

Not all social robots are the same as PeopleBot. While maintaining the same primary characteristic of being socially intelligent robots, other social robots have their artificial intelligence and systems programmed differently and also look different. Social robots can also be socially assistive robots; humanoid robots; companion robots; and entertainment robots. It does not have to be one or another, social robots can be a select combination or fusion of all.

An impressive social robot that has multiple programs and characteristics is Bandit– an autonomous social robot, humanoid robot, therapeutic robot, and socially assistive robot that is uniquely designed to teach social behavior to children with autism spectrum disorder, motivate older adults to exercise and even provide therapies to stroke patients.

There are also social robots that have autonomous systems powered by artificial intelligence that can independently interact with humans just from nonverbal cues alone or their physical environment. These social robots are sometimes called smart robots and are typically based on a cognitive computing model, which allows them to stimulate human thought processes. Particularly helpful in the field of cognitive robotics and cognitive sciences, these types of social robots use machine learning systems and computing systems that can be useful for data mining, natural language processing, and even pattern recognition of facial expressions.

However, since social robots still run on artificial intelligence, they are no different from other robots in the sense that both need to be remote-controlled and programmed. After all, social robots are not socially embedded with human cognition nor have a biological human form to help perform some tasks that require human-like body movements.

What Makes a Robot Social?

Unraveling the Research What May Make an Interactive Robot Social

Pop culture has played a major influence in how society would commonly describe sociable robots. Modern plots that included or revolved around human-robot interactions are often portrayed as an exaggeration of the current features and programs of these social robots. Truth be told, some of these “exaggerations” would definitely be amazing to have in real life. Fortunately, social robotics research, aided by the social sciences, is actually helping us turn them into reality.

Springer International Publishing published a social robotics study on what makes a robot social enough for a dog to sense its sociality. Dogs were used in this study as previous research has indicated that they are able to adapt to a wide range of social interactions and situations, even with the lack of non-verbal cues, thanks to the behaviors and patterns they have picked up from their human owners. In addition to this, the researchers conducting this social robotics study find that human beings might be biased when they see the social robot used in the experiment, PeopleBot, due to cultural influences.

In the social robotics experiment conducted, the dogs interacted with two kinds of interactive social robots: an enriched social robot with behavior similar to humans and a deprived asocial robot that is machinelike. The former social robot would have a social human-robot interaction with the owner of the dog; shaking hands, conversing, and pointing to a bowl of food, while the dog watches all social interactions in the same room. On the other hand, the latter social robot would have a delayed social human-robot interaction with the owner of the dog and later with the dog itself.

From the findings, the social robotics experiment was able to conclude that dogs were more receptive to social robots that would use verbal communication, call their names, and perform communicative gestures and movements. Although the dog’s human factors in the equation as the owners had human-robot interaction while the animal was inside. This may have influenced the social interaction and response the dog had towards the social robots. 

Regardless, the social robotics experiment helped in scientifically proving that robots can be deemed as social robots even by dogs through an exchange of social interaction where both parties become social partners. This also helps in debunking the common notion that social robots are limited to humanoid robots or a human robot that can create “facial expressions” – such design in aesthetics does not make a social robot any less.

What is the Function of Social Robots?

Social robots have a wide range of functions that benefit human users in various fields and industries. These social robots are often programmed with features, skills, and systems that can help human users complete a simple task to a complex task thus, they are used and also called assistive social robots. Let’s take a look at some of the most common industries where human-robot interaction of social robots has been a big help.

Social Robots in the Service Industry

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Social robots used in the service industry are autonomously operated but are pre-programmed by human users according to the tasks and functions they require them to perform to be of help. A service robot would usually interact with humans in retail, hospitality, healthcare, or fulfillment settings to improve efficiency.

Amelia The Conversational AI is an example of a social robot who “works” in the service industry particularly in IT, Human Resources, Banking, Insurance, and Healthcare. Manufactured by IPSoft, Amelia is a “human” robot that has the ability to interact with humans through her speech recognition and can make facial expressions to a certain extent.

Acting as an intelligent virtual agent and customer support representative, Amelia represents sociable robots as she can engage in human-robot interaction, natural conversation, and answer queries regarding services.

Social Robots in the Healthcare Industry

Unraveling the Research What May Make an Interactive Robot Social

Social robots in the healthcare industry are able to help in numerous ways. There are social robots that can provide much-needed companionship through human-robot interaction, which is especially beneficial for seniors or Alzheimer’s patients. There are also social robots deployed in patient care to help in assisting hospital workers in the pediatric ward since this level of human-robot interaction provides entertainment to the children.

Social robot PARO was used in a study that sought to determine its effectiveness in care settings for older people with dementia. Although further research is still needed for this, the study concluded that the robot PARO is beneficial in supporting the psychological needs and care experiences of dementia patients. The human-robot interaction it was able to provide was advantageous to reducing negative emotion and behavior symptoms of dementia. 

In connection to the robot, PARO is the NAO Robot from SoftBank Robotics. NAO Robot is a small humanoid robot that is also being used in the field of education and research. This humanoid robot has speech recognition and dialogue in 20 languages, two 2D cameras to help in recognizing facial expressions, built-in microphones and speakers, 7 touch sensors, and 25 degrees of freedom mobility making it extremely useful for the NAO Robot to interact with humans.

Said humanoid robot by SoftBank Robotics is able to teach children with diabetes about their illness and deliver personalized responses to them, acting as a companion robot in a sense that can give kids answers and comfort about their condition and how to cope with it. Through programmed quizzes and games, the NAO robots interact with the children and help them absorb information about diabetes in a fun and interactive way that only social robots can provide.

Another humanoid robot created by SoftBank Robotics filed under social robots in the healthcare industry is robot Pepper. This semi-humanoid robot is designed to read human emotions and communicate with them. The social robot, Pepper, has conversational skills that are particularly helpful in interacting with children diagnosed with autism.

Social robots in the healthcare industry are becoming a key tool in therapy sessions and patient care. Although not all of them are human-like robots in terms of appearance, they do have the social skills that can pass in providing quality human-robot social exchanges.

Social Robots in the Field of Education

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Social robots used for education also serve as ‘companion robots’ in the sense that they primarily act as a tutor or peer that can help children in their learning process or human users in varying fields of study.

Social robots such as Tico are developed to motivate children in the classroom. Used as a pedagogic robotic tool, social robots aimed at children in school also help teachers in getting and keeping the attention of kids to help in progressing lesson plans.

On the other hand, social robots such as Sophia by Hanson Robotics help professionals in the field of medicine and education in a more advanced setting. Touted as the future of AI, social robots such as Sophia contributed to the field by being a tool in helping researchers and scientists understand robotics cognitive science wherein robots can adapt to humans’ needs via intra- and interpersonal development.

A Final Word

From the name itself, social robots are designed under the inspiration of biological systems and humans– making them interactive and social by nature. These social robots are embedded in human society for future studies and provide important contributions in various fields, which make them efficient and believable social robot partners and companions for many.

In their ability to provide a variety of functions such as educational tools, therapy robots, and virtual assistants, these social robots help in advancing technology for humanity that are useful in assisting by way of adapting human-like social qualities.

The primary difference of social robots from other robots is the function to be able to communicate and engage in conversations in a more ‘social’ manner and process reactions or expressions that can emit a response from them.

As proven by the social robotics study published by Springer International Publishing published on what makes a robot social enough for a dog to sense its sociality, social robots do not primarily need to be human-like in appearance so long as they are able to provide a level of human-robot interaction in social environments.

On that note, the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI), an institution making an immense contribution to social robotics believes that a most advantageous robot-human coexistence is within reach. According to IEEE, robot-human coexistence will be everywhere by 2030.

The ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) stated that social robots will make strides outside of humanoid domestic help. However, in said international conference, there is still a need to further develop a framework that will dive into the social interaction between socially capable robots with humans.

Ultimately, the field of social robots and social robots is one that still needs to be further explored. Further research and studies on social robotics aided by social sciences, cognitive science, behavioral research, and even computer science may help in advancing and decoding social robots. 

With the advancements today and the available data, one can expect an exciting outlook on the future of social robots — from designing social robots independently from the embodiment of a social agent to coming up with functions that help in assisting humanity and advantageous human-robot cooperation through social interactions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are human-robot interactions?

Human-robot interaction is a field of study that studies the interaction between humans and robots. The ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) is an institution that specializes in this. Human-robot interactions look at human-computer interaction, AI, and NPL.

Can a social robot be capable of human-robot interaction?

As studied by ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI), a social robot is indeed capable of human-robot interaction through its design and programs that are patterned after a human’s to help in cognitive skills.

Sota Takahashi

Sota Takahashi is a Japanese-born electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he moved to Seattle and completed his Electrical Engineering degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. Being a fan of all things tech, he channels his geeky side through this website, and with his wife Linda, shares knowledge about robot pets and how they can be lifelong and advantageous companions for both children and the elderly.

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