Cowardly robot steals hearts and minds

Image: Phobot the cowardly robot.
Henriette Cramer, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam's Human-Computer Studies Lab, works with Phobot the cowardly robot.HCS - Univ. of Amsterdam
/ Source: The Associated Press

A robot with a cowardly streak took top honors at a conference on human-robot interaction in Amsterdam with antic displays intended to mimic human phobia.

Attendees at a competition this month of seven teams from technical universities around the world voted the "Phobot," designed by a team of students from the University of Amsterdam, their favorite.

When first exposed to a fear-inspiring object —in this case, a menacing larger robot — the Phobot retreats and then spins in circles. It overcomes its "fear" by getting comfortable with small robots and working its way up to large ones — mimicking the psychological principle of "graded exposure."

"This robot is there as a sort of buddy to help a child having any kind of actual fear, doing it step by step," said team member Ork de Rooij. "The child would say, 'Hey, not only am I scared, but this robot is also scared, so maybe we can help each other.' "

All contestants used the same set of Lego robotics — with light, sound, touch and ultrasound sensors — plus National Instruments software.

The jury's prize —and second place in the popular vote — went to "Pot Bot," a device that monitors potted plants and determines whether they need water or sunlight. Its sensors find the strongest available light source, and it then signals people with that information using two handlike front panels.

"The robot acts as a mediator to make communication between humans and nature more fluid," said Sonya Kwak, who led a joint team from Carnegie Mellon University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology created Pot Bot.

Pot Bot also uses Lego strips hanging at its sides like wind chimes to signal wind conditions. And it can spread the strips like wings in a display of gratitude when the plant receives water.

"The robot itself was not so sophisticated, but it had an artistic quality to it, and it was very different, very original," said organizer Christoph Bartneck of the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, explaining the jury decision.