Venus Yu ’17 discusses senior research on social robotics

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SARAH Robot

Robotics have come a long way over the past 30 years and have become a lot more commonplace in today’s society. Robots nowadays do everything from processing your Amazon order, to vacuuming your house. However, all of these applications of robotics don’t really require any meaningful human interaction. When people do communicate and interact with robots using social behaviors, it is called social robotics. Venus Yu ‘17, a computer science student, whose senior thesis project was entitled “Attracting Human Attention Using Robotic Facial Expressions and Gestures” aimed to answer the question: how can we get robots to interact with humans appropriately? Other goals included focusing on getting people’s attention and engaging them in a quick conversation, as well as whether adding movement to a verbal greeting changed how people interacted with the robot. At the forefront of the project was Union’s very own social robot SARAH, which stands for Socially Appropriate Robot that Approaches for Help. SARAH consists of a screen for a face, synthesized speech outputted through speakers for a voice, several different movement capabilities, as well as number for pad for a user to interact with and provide input if needed. The main experiment involved SARAH being stationed in Wold Center and greeting people verbally and smiling as they passed by her. Yu remotely controlled SARAH from the nearby Collaborative Robotics and Computer Human Empirical Testing (CROCHET) lab; there Yu could control SARAH’s facial expressions. SARAH would greet people passing by and say “Hello? Can you please help me?” if people approached her she would ask them to press a number on her keypad. If the person pressed the right number SARAH would smile at the person. One of the interesting findings by Yu was that SARAH caught more people’s attention when she was moving but this did not result in more people interacting with SARAH and performing the desired task. Yu also found that being a robot was SARAH’s biggest strength but also weakness. Some people though it was cool that she was a robot, while others were afraid of her for similar reasons. Another interesting finding focuses on people’s different reactions to the robot’s asking for help. It is possible that many people did not notice the robot at all, as the Wold Center is often crowded and noisy, and students frequently walk around campus with headphones on, talking to friends and classmates, or looking at their phones. In the cases of students who did notice the robot, it was not uncommon for them to say, “Cool! A robot!” and proceed to take out their phone and take pictures, or film the robot, even while it repeatedly asked for help. As technology continues to improve, robotics will advance as well, and become more commonplace in our society. This in turn will lead to more social robotics interactions, but the question remains: how far do we have to go to where social robotics is seen as a natural part of everyday life?

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