Bucky to the Rescue

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bucky the PeopleBot RobotHCDE has a new a mascot: Bucky the PeopleBot robot. PeopleBot is a trade name of Mobile Robots, Inc., which builds robots for research and industry.

Assistant Professor Sarah Kriz oversees the Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) study, assisted by PhD candidate Jonathan Morgan, freshmen programmers Ian Finder and Eli White, and Master’s student Priya Guruprakash Rao.
Bucky’s keepers affectionately refer to “it” as “him.” The robot and his human crew were the first to settle into their new HCDE quarters on the largely vacant fourth floor of Sieg Hall. Bucky’s namesake and screen avatar is twentieth-century inventor Buckminster Fuller, one of the most prominent leaders of human centered design. Kriz’s earlier HRI experiments were with Sony’s robot dog, Aibo. “This robot has a lot more power,” she says, “and a lot more you can do with programming.”

Kriz studies how test subjects’ preconceptions and attitudes color their interactions with robots and what it is about a robot’s voice or manner that attracts or repels. Her educational background—a PhD in Cognitive Psychology and a Bachelor’s and Master’s in linguistics—makes her well qualified to pick up nuances in human expression and behavior. The goal is to improve human/robot relations: “You can make robots do amazing things, but what behavior will make them acceptable to humans?”

In the not-too-distant future, service ‘bots will become commonplace. Kriz has applied for funding that would allow her to analyze how Americans 60 and older respond to robots. If frightened or annoyed by a robot’s manner, people are less likely to welcome its help. “I don’t think there’s enough research in human factors to really know what a good robot is for that population,” Kriz says.

Bucky’s mellow, baritone voice inspires trust. In a recent workshop, a group of high school students helped enact a rescue scenario, with Bucky as hero. The result was immortalized on DVD, complete with music and an interview with the student actors. They liked Bucky’s voice and friendly screen image, which morphed from Buckminster Fuller’s to a smiley face after the rescue. Bucky even earned a hug for his troubles. --by Catherine Treadgold