Multi-gendered robots? Custom traits help humans decide their household uses (VIDEO)

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Giving a robot multiple gender traits through custom screens helps create “multi-functional” roles for the household, Pennsylvania State University researchers have shown in a new study.

“Historically robots have been thought of as being male, and increasingly we have used for robots to be in a somewhat feminine roles like a nurse bot for example, so we wondering if there was anything we could do to the morphology of the robot or the way the robot looks and talks to make it seem more feminine, so that it might be more acceptable in roles where users might like it to be more feminine than masculine,” Dr. Shyman Sunder, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of Penn State’s Media Effects Research Lab, who conducted the study, told RT.

“That’s what started it, but gender was not the critical aspect of our interest. Our interest was really figuring out if robot personalities could be embedded with ease by just manipulating aspects of the robots screen rather than changes to the morphology or body of the robot,” he added.

The study found that feminine cues on the robot’s screen were enough to convince participants that a robot was a female. Sundar said there is research suggesting that people treat computers like other human beings, and with robots being more anthropomorphic, people have a tendency to treat them in a context relatable to daily life.

“This opens [up] a new way of designing robots, especially in imbuing personality to robots. Previously whenever we thought of robots, we thought of them as completely put-together objects,” Sundar told RT. “Historically we have thought about robots as entities that have entire personalities as coming together in one form and that’s why there is this tendency to view robots as humanoid because they are human-like for the most part, and invariably we have human aspects that come along with it. Now, if you put a screen on the robot, instead of a face or maybe in addition to a face, as it turns out, we can manipulate many aspects of the robot including how human-life it is and what kind of role it places, and in this case, what gender, by just manipulating what is on the screen.”

In the study, two robots were given external gender cues, a man’s hat on the male robot and pink earmuffs on the female robot. To test the effect of the screens, the researchers showed the participants a robot with a screen face including a man’s hat for one condition and a face with pink earmuffs for the other. Another robot had female cues on both its body and screen. A robot with no gender cues served as the control. As voice is another gender cue, the researchers used the same gender-neutral voice for all conditions.

“The robot with female cues on both body and screen elicited the strongest perception of robot femininity among the participants,” said Eun Hawa Jung, a doctoral student in mass communications, who worked on the study, according to a Penn State release.

The participants in the study used a smartphone application to interact with the robot. The robot first moved towards and greeted the participant. After the greeting, the robot asked the participants if they would like to hear music and played two 30-second song clips. Participants gave their opinion of the song, and the robot returned to its regular location.

“We were working against the stereotype of robots being always male. So there was an extra effort to kind of make sure the female robot was perceived as female, so this is what we call ‘manipulation check,’” said Sundar. “After several reiterations of design, the robot was very distinctly male or female, and there was not that much gray area.”

Sundar and his team think customizing robots has implications beyond gender, race, and age – it may also be able to cut costs.

“In the future, we envision robots just like we envision our computers,” said Sander. “So it would not be feasible for us to have multiple computers for different purposes. We use the computer for word processing as well as excel spreadsheet and so on.”

“Likewise we might have different roles or expectations from our robots at different times of the day or in different locations in the home, so it might be a matter of swapping out what is on the screen in order to make that robot multi-functional.”

Researchers presented their findings at the ACM conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this week. The study, entitled Altering a Robot’s Gender and Social Roles May be a Screen Change Away, was published in Science Daily.