A very interesting, ‘social robotics’ study recently gave us all some nice resultats. Apparently people do not always appreciate being touched by a robot.
Somewhat surprisingly the results from one of the experiments showed that it matters why the robot touches you. If people think (because they are told) that it is because they will be washed then that is okay, but if the robot touched someone to comfort them then they found it much less agreeable, even though the touch movement was exactly the same. Apparently instrumental touching is more acceptable than social touching. And the perceived intention is what matters, according to one the researchers, Charlie Kemp. However, if you compare this result to the positive responses generally reported with the huggable robot Paro, then I think that this result may depend to a large extent on the actual appearance and exact behaviour of the robot. In this case the apperance and behaviour of the robot, Cody, may have created a mismatch with an intention to provide a comforting touch. In other words, the robot does not look like or act like it is designed to provide a comforting touch, it looks like it is designed to clean people (which is exactly what it was designed for).
In addition, the results showed that people did not like it if the robot announced that it was going to touch them, perhaps, as indicated by the researchers, because the voice startled them. Here, I think it is very important how a robot speaks exactly. If it speaks with a moving mouth and facial gestures, then this comes across as if the voice is coming from the robot. If a robot has a face and mouth that are able to ‘speak’ then people may actually expect a voice. But, if a robot speaks ‘out of nowhere’, for example if it merely plays a soundbite through a speaker, then this can easily startle people. It is a disembodied voice. So, again I think that follow-up experiments should be done to provide more conclusive results (as also suggested by the researchers). In a way this resembles the previous critical remark: the robot does not look like it was designed to talk to people so it may come across as a mismatch if it does talk.
But, all in all, this sort of research is very useful and more of it is needed to support the succesful introduction of healthcare robotics.
The original paper, presented at the HRI 2011 conference can be downloaded here
Science News Blog wrote a decent summary as well: Study Investigates How People Respond to Being Touched by a Robot.