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Robots and Design

There’s a pretty interesting museum exhibit on tour right now, on the importance of design in robots.

Here’s an article on it:

Has anyone seen it?

The article highlights the utility of good design in making robots less threatening and improving acceptance by members of society.

An interesting counterpoint is the recent video by Boston-Dynamics, as discussed in this article:

May people found it threatening, but as the article wonders - if the robot had been cuter, would people still be as scared?

What do you think?


My eighty year old father likes to tell this story about how his mother was terrified of the first microwave he purchased for her. In the story, she was convinced that the microwave could make the buttons on her shirt warm to the touch. Based on this feeling she would not remain in the room while the microwave was on. Just a funny anecdote about fear of a new technology.

To answer the question, I don’t think they have to be cute, I think they need to be familiar. Once my grandmother’s microwave looked more like a normal appliance that she was accustomed to, I think her fears subsided. I don’t remember her being afraid of the microwave.


Great story Jody. I think familiarity is a big part of how “the mass market” gets comfortable with most new technologies. Interestingly, when Ian blogged about the four key requirements for personal robots, he listed familiarity as one of the four.

@jody In your opinion, how would you design a robot to make it look “familiar”? Does that mean it has to look like something from movies or television? Or should it look more like an appliance? Or should it look more like a human? Or perhaps familiarity goes deeper than appearance? For example, maybe it should function in ways that those who might fear it will find similar to other machines in their lives?

@michael I think familiarity can be acquired through means other than appearance. The Amazon echo is a good example. It has entered the public zeitgeist now and people are familiar with it. It’s just a black tube with a light ring. You see the blue light ring and you know it is listening, followed by some sort of positive response or an “I don’t know”

For personal robots I think we need to design them so we can know their intentions. I love the idea of using expressions to convey intent on the Misty. There are other subtle cues that could be baked in that would induce comfort and familiarity. Things like having the misty back up, tilt its head up and say hello if it has not seen you in a some time. Or just moving out of the way when you walk by. The roomba is just a disc, but my wife stuck a couple of googly eyes and a license plate on it. The googly eyes have fallen off and everyone still talks to it like it’s a household pet.


^ This human gets what I’m talking about. Familiarity can be bred by using metaphors and interactions and mental models that people are already used to using. Non-human companion animals and cartoons, for example, have been used as a basis for human-robot interaction successfully in the past.