Right now, a robot can vacuum your house or change your cat's litter box, but good luck carrying on a conversation with one. In the next few years, however, that could change: Robotics researchers have discovered that "smart objects" — household objects with rudimentary social interaction abilities — can generate as much empathy from tech-savvy humans as fully humanoid robots.
Dr. S. Shyam Sundar and a team of researchers at Penn State set up a sly experiment to measure responses to a "smart" tissue box. Sixty-three undergraduate students participated in a study they believed would measure their cognition during an online game.
During the experiment, the presenter sneezed, at which point either a research assistant, a humanoid robot or a tissue box would say "Bless you!" and "Here, have a tissue." This delighted a number of students, some of whom exclaimed, "That is cool!" or "Where did that come from?"
The students completed a survey afterwards, still ostensibly about the game, but with a number of questions intermittently incorporated about the sneeze and whichever entity — humanoid robot or smart tissue box — consoled the sneezing presenter.
"Right now, [smart objects] are just kind of invisible," Sundar told TechNewsDaily. "But we think that down the road when they become ubiquitous, they need to start communicating with us."
The initial findings on smart object communication were encouraging: When measured for traits like friendliness, sociability and intelligence, the smart tissue box scored similarly to the human research assistant, and occasionally exceeded the humanoid robot. "We did not find that there was a visible negative reaction," Sundar said.
Results also varied based on individual predispositions to technology (the study deemed tech-savvy students "power users") and "parasocial" intelligence, or "the tendency for being immersed in media," according to Sundar. "A 'parasocial tendency' is the ability to be in a social relationship with a mediated entity as if it were real." In other words, viewers who get attached to characters on TV shows are likely to view smart objects with amusement rather than uneasiness. [See also: Top 7 Useful Robots You Can Buy Right Now ]
A talking tissue box may not be the scientific world's most pressing advancement, but Sundar believes that smart objects have a more important role to play in the future.
"The baby boomer generation is going to explode into retirement in the next few years," he said. "They're going to have a whole bunch of smart objects, including a pillbox that talks to them."
Sundar also envisions a refrigerator that can inform people when they're low on food via Twitter, and even a "smart house" where all the appliances communicate with each other to keep affairs in order.
With only 63 participants (most of whom were female, and all of whom were about 20 years old), the experiment does not necessarily predict how most people will react to smart objects. "Some people are going to be more accepting than others," Sundar said. "This is not something that would be universal, at least right now."
Useful household robots and an aging population that wants to stay put may well create a desire for more companionable machines. They won't be " more human than human," to take a line from "Blade Runner," but robotic vacuum cleaners and pillboxes will likely be more efficient at a rote task than true androids.
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