Friendly nurse or nightmare-inducing machine? How culture programs our taste in robots.

[This Washington Post story uses vivid examples to highlight cultural differences in how people experience medium-as-social-actor presence with robots that provide different sets of social cues. See the original story for two short videos. –Matthew]

[Image: Robots wearing nurse uniforms carry medical documents Wednesday at Mongkutwattana General Hospital in Bangkok. Credit: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters).]

Friendly nurse or nightmare-inducing machine? How culture programs our taste in robots.

This is Thailand’s idea of an attractive robot. Americans might be terrified.

By Peter Holley
February 7, 2019

Slowly and silently, they glide across the floor wearing bright yellow dresses that look as though they were plucked from a haunted 1920s boarding school.

Beneath shoulder-length brown wigs, two blazing red eyes — each one massive and ghoulish — glare from behind a darkened pane of transparent plastic like a demonic predator lurking in the dark.

No, you haven’t encountered some Mothman-like terror entombed inside a department store mannequin, the byproduct of a twisted, futuristic fever dream. You’ve merely stepped inside Mongkutwattana General Hospital in Bangkok, where a team of robot nurses has been unleashed to make life easier.

Their job: ferrying documents between eight stations inside the health-care facility, a job that used to be carried out busy human nurses, hospital director Reintong Nanna told Newsflare last year.

“These robotic nurses help to improve the efficiency and performance of working in the hospital,” he said. “They are not being used to reduce the number of employees.”

The trio of unsmiling machines — which can be programmed to speak both Thai and English — have been named Nan, Nee and Nim, according to the news outlet. Nanna said they move by following a magnetic strip that winds across the hospital floor, and can travel several miles each day.

Because they reduce human error, he added, the hospital plans to increase their workload to include moving equipment and preparing drug dosages.

Humanoid robots are taking a more active role in caring for the sick and elderly in Asia, but don’t expect to see similar machines roaming the halls of U.S. hospitals any time soon. That’s because robot design is often culture-specific, with some countries excitedly deploying machines that would probably terrify sickly patients in other countries, according to Cory Kidd, founder and CEO of Catalia Health, which has designed its own smiling, doe-eyed “personal healthcare robot” named “Mabu.”

His reaction to the glowing red eyes currently staring down Thai patients: “They’re creepy.”

“Robot aesthetics are culturally dependent,” he said, noting that the Thai hospital bots were designed in China. “If we had these nurses in a U.S. hospital, that would not work. They wouldn’t survive a day. But they might be received completely differently in Thai hospitals.”

Online surveys have revealed contrasts in how robots are perceived by country as well. While both Europeans and Japanese respondents agree that robots should be used to assist with difficult and repetitive tasks, the nature of acceptable tasks — and the degree of intimacy involved — differs widely, according to a team of international researchers.

In their 2014 article “Cultural Differences in Perception and Attitude Towards Robots,” researchers note that Japanese respondents associate the word “robot” with more autonomy and emotional capacity than other countries.

Perhaps that explains another startling difference: Japanese respondents were far more likely to say that they’d let a robot directly touch their bodies than Europeans — while giving a massage, for example.

Researchers also found that “Japanese would rather let a robot baby sit their children than take care of animals.”

Americans, meanwhile, remain strongly resistant to help of any kind from robots, according to the results of a Brookings Institution survey last year. The survey revealed that 61 percent of U.S. adult Internet users were “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable” with robots, with only 20 percent of respondents indicating that they were interested in robots that could assist in domestic chores.

“I think the care-taking part is going to take a bit more time for people to be comfortable with,” Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution, told Recode.

Kidd, an MIT-trained roboticist who has spent decades studying the psychology of human-robot interaction, said different attitudes about robots reflect different visions of the future. He said that in Japan, for example, many researchers envision a world in which robots behave as naturally as humans. That premise has led Japanese researchers to begin building lifelike androids that resemble humans as closely as possible.

The result has been robots like Erica, a brunette with pale, humanlike skin and the ability to produce facial expressions. Though she’s trained to work as a receptionist and can respond to questions like Amazon’s Alexa, she has a penchant for staring into the distance in a way that can feel unsettling.

Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, a famed roboticist, designed his first android to closely resemble his daughter, a decision that so frightened her that the machine had to be locked in a crate, according to Bloomberg News. He considers Erica — which Bloomberg News referred to as possibly “the creepiest robot ever built” — a vast improvement.

“I think that this is the most beautiful face in the world,” Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, told Bloomberg News. “She’s cute, isn’t she?”

That’s probably up for debate, Kidd said.

Robots that closely resemble humans often invoke the “uncanny valley,” a concept that suggests people respond positively to androids that look or behave like us, but only to a point. When the likeness becomes too strangely familiar, the affinity vanishes, a backlash occurs, and people find robots creepy and revolting.

For many observers, a good example of the concept in action is “Geminoid,” another Ishiguro creation.

The trick for roboticists is finding the line between affinity and fear. Or, as Kidd puts it: “How do you put machines in front of people without making the devices feel creepy?”

His advice: A robot needs to be tailored to its context. If it’s delivering towels in the back of the hospital, it can look like a simple cart. But if the robot is being designed to interact with people, the machine needs to be able to perform its job without upsetting them. One of the first things he suggests is giving a robot the ability to make eye contact with people, a feature he included in Mabu, which was designed to tilt its head, blink and interact socially.

“Eye contact makes a big difference,” he said. “Even if you know it’s a machine, that doesn’t matter. They need to be eyes that can look at you, and they can’t be creepy.”


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