05-29 soft social robots

[Image above] Robots do not need to be white and plasticky—they can be homely and cozy instead! Credit: Michael Suguitan, Cornell University

A lot of talk about robots revolves around robots performing jobs requiring manual labor, from moving large packages in a warehouse to cleaning up a messy room. But there is another, increasingly studied application of robots—as social companions.

Social robots are robots designed to provide companionship to humans. Researchers are especially interested in the potential for social robots to help children, for example, to reduce a child’s anxiety in healthcare contexts or to help children with autism develop social skills.

For social robots to effectively aid humans, humans must be willing to emotionally bond with the robot—it should feel like interacting with someone instead of something. To encourage such a bond, robots need to portray human-like emotions and empathy, and a lot of research has gone into developing artificial intelligence software to achieve such a feat.

Yet for all the focus on developing social robots that can act warm and friendly, research on designing equally warm and friendly exteriors has been largely overlooked.

“I noticed a lot of [social robots] had a very similar kind of feature—white and plasticky, designed like consumer electronic devices,” says Guy Hoffman, assistant professor of engineering at Cornell University, in a Cornell news release.

Hoffman is a roboticist who specializes in human–robot interactions, and he has given interviews on the benefits that social robots can offer in a variety of settings, from schools to hospitals to homes. He feels that the white, plastic exterior that currently dominates social robot design leaves much to be desired—if robots are supposed to be part of the family, why do they all look the same?

There is a definite trend in social robot exterior design. How could we make social robots look more homely? Credit: Just Wow me, YouTube

Hoffman explored alternative materials for exterior robot design and came up with Blossom, an expressive and inexpensive robot platform that can be made from a kit and creatively outfitted with handcrafted materials.

“We wanted to empower people to build their own robot, but without sacrificing how expressive it is,” says Hoffman. “Also, it’s nice to have every robot be a little bit different. If you knit your robot, every family would have their own robot that would be unique to them.”

Blossom’s mechanical design is centered on a floating “head” platform, in which strings and cables are used for movement to make gestures more flexible and organic than those of a rigid, metallic robot. The platform is covered in a soft fabric exterior, which is created by hand through either knitting or crocheting.

In March, Hoffman and his doctoral student Michael Suguitan published an open-access paper on the project in the journal Association for Computing Machinery Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction. In the paper, they discuss their experience exhibiting Blossom at a children’s Science Day event and using Blossom in an educational workshop on robotics engineering for middle school students.

“[The middle school students gave] a wide variety of responses about the favorite part, with some students enjoying the craft more, and others preferring the mechanical construction or the gesture generation,” Hoffman and Suguitan explain in the paper. “Similar to the children’s Science Day experience, this suggests that the Blossom platform allows students with different interests to be involved in some capacity.”

For a research field that usually feels far removed from a general audience, Blossom’s ability to provide non-engineers a way to engage with robots is a refreshing change. Instead of your grandma knitting you a sweater for Christmas, she could knit you a robot instead!

Credit: Human-Robot Collaboration and Companionship Lab, YouTube