Innovation Heroes

TRANSCRIPT: The Hitchiking Robot’s Guide to the Univers

November 11, 2021

Ed   

This episode of Innovation Heroes is brought to you by HP Inc Notebooks on the Intel Evo Platform. Visit shi.com/hp to learn more. 

 

Frauke   

[Innovation Heroes theme music plays] Whenever I would let the hitchBOT go, I would just tap its little head, and say, "Goodbye, hitchBOT" and I did it when we let it go in the US, and then it randomly responded, "I think I changed my mind," and I feel guilty that I didn't listen to this little robot. 

 

Ed   

Welcome to SHI's Innovation Heroes, a podcast exploring the people and businesses making a difference in our constantly disrupted world. I'm your host, Ed McNamara. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues] 

 

Ed   

[quirky, upbeat music] Robots are fast becoming a part of our everyday lives. They are stocking our shelves, [truck beeping] cleaning our floors, [robot voice vocalizes] and even helping doctors perform complex surgeries.  

 

Robot   

Scalpel, please. 

 

Ed   

But when does a robot go from a mere computer to a real companion? Hollywood has lots of examples of robots that are nearly as human as we are, so when is the technology going to finally catch up to our silver screen dreams? Enter social robotics. [pensive, suspenseful music] This discipline examines the role of robots in human society and attempts to shed light on what it means to be a robot. Frankly, I hadn't ever heard of social robots before, that is, until I met Dr. Frauke Zeller and Lauren Dwyer. Frauke is an Associate Professor and Director of the Creative School Catalyst at X University in Toronto, Canada, and Lauren is a doctoral candidate in Communications and Culture, Technology and Practice, also at X University. Frauke is also the co-creator of the world famous hitchBOT, a project that Lauren assisted on. HitchBOT first rose to fame in 2014 when it began hitchhiking across Canada before moving on to several other countries. The hitchBOT project was designed to turn the question of robot trustworthiness on its head by asking whether or not robots could trust humans. It turns out they can trust Canadians, Europeans and Americans as far as Philadelphia. Frauke and Lauren have since gone on to work on some amazing projects and are doing fascinating research on the intersection of robots and society. They spend their days asking some pretty big questions around the future of robotics. But today, I get to be the one asking the questions. Frauke and Lauren, welcome to Innovation Heroes. 

 

Frauke   

Thank you for having us.  

 

Lauren   

Thank you. 

 

Ed   

Frauke, for our listeners who don't know, what is hitchBOT? What did you learn from it? And what did hitchBOT teach us? 

 

Frauke   

HitchBOT was, or is, Canada's first hitchhiking robot. Together with my co-creator, David Harris Smith, from McMaster University, we came up with a really wacky idea in 2014, to build a robot that would independently, without our help, try to hitchhike all across Canada. So, I have to say a little bit, we have a very dynamic team, and so, David comes more from a background with multimedia, and he's actually also an artist so he's the one with the creative ideas, and I'm the one with the background, having done lots of research in the past, already, on robots, so I always kept saying, "That's never gonna work," and he said, "Let's just try," and then, at some point, I thought, "Why not?" you know. So what we were planning to do, or what we did, with a fantastic team of also student researchers, was to build a robot and then put it in a situation that nobody wouldn't-- a robot expect to be in, so standing on the side of a road, busy road and putting up the thumb, saying, "I want to hitchhike [Ed laughs] all across the country," and also doing what is really unusual, right? Usually, when you do robotic experiments, you always have them make sure, first rule of thumb, don't let them out of your sight, make sure it's in the lab, make sure it's a controlled space, so this was absolutely uncontrolled, and it was not a typical scientific experiment, per se. So that is very important. So it was planned from the start to engage the public, to learn from the public, how they would talk about the robot, how they would engage with the robot, or not, so everything was voluntary, nothing was prescribed. We said, "Either you take the robot and help it," 'cause it needed all kinds of help, "or you just leave it standing there." We let go really important data by saying, "Okay, we won't record the actual interaction." For me, as a researcher, of course, that was very painful, right? But we said, "We need to make sure people feel at ease with the technology," and by doing this, we had an immense success and really great feedback from the people. Canadians came together on social media saying, "Come on, let's all help this little robot. We're Canadians. We're supposed to be helpful. [Ed laughs] We can do this," and I must say I was really, really deeply impressed by this. Then finally, of course, there must have been one or two, we don't really know, not-so-nice people in the US that finally just killed the robot, and we don't really know... Until today, we don't know what happened, how many people were involved, why that happened, whatsoever, but that was just really, out of thousands of people, there was just probably one or two. 

 

Ed   

I have to know. Can you tell us where that happened?  

 

Frauke   

That happened in Philadelphia. They sent back the body of the broken robot, but we never got the head back, interestingly enough, so there's lots of mysteries around it. I think we'll never really find out the truth, which is also interesting, right? 

 

Ed   

So, for our listeners, what is a social robot and what makes them so cool? 

 

Lauren   

Social robots differ from your standard conception of, like, what a robot might be, in that their primary goal and, like, their number-one function is to communicate and to be in some way social with people. So, the concept of social robotics and this whole field is based around interaction, and interacting with people, and developing those relationships. So, if you think about, like, a Roomba. A Roomba is a robot. It vacuums. It does it all on its own, but you're not going to go and other, like, try and interact with the Roomba or have a conversation with it, though, you might. I mean, I get it. [laughing] Sometimes people talk to their appliances, you know, yell at their microwave, or whatever, but a Roomba wouldn't count as social. When you think about social robots, like, the thoughts that come, like, the examples that come to me are always, like, pop culture versions, so thinking of C-3PO from Star Wars, whose, like, primary goal was to talk to people and to be a cultural liaison, or even, like, now, this one's slightly more in between, but even if you think of, like, Baymax from Disney's Big Hero 6, you have a robot that talks to, and facilitates interaction. I mean, yes, its primary function is to be a medical assistant, but it still talks to people, and it still makes people feel things and that, kind of-- that's where social robotics falls. 

 

Ed   

It's really interesting. I guess my question is, you know, the Roomba doesn't speak, but the robots that you're talking to do, and I once remember, way back in a philosophy class in college, I read this book about whether humans were born with the ability to speak, or developed it through evolution, and the author's premise was it was developed over evolution to the point where our ability to choke is actually a compromise. Like, most animals can't do that, but it's a compromise, because speaking is actually more important to us, as a species, than, you know, than actually not, like, choking on food. So how important is that, your robots speak? And how much do, you know, how they look come into it, as well? 

 

Lauren   

[gentle electronic music] I would like to argue, or at least I argue in most of my PhD research, and in my master's research, that speaking isn't the most important part, or it's not the only part that matters to communicate. When we talk to each other, we also base a lot on facial cues, and on expression of emotion, and, even on haptic or touch, you can convey messages with people without having to use your words. I mean, just putting a hand on someone's shoulder can convey meaning and can be social. That can be true with robotics as well, right? Like, it all comes down to that design. 

 

Frauke   

Another immediate interesting part, though, is when it comes to machines and social, especially social robots, and when they actually start talking, and when they also have this, kind of a, notion of machine learning and artificial intelligence, which basically means in hitchBOT, in the American version, hitchBOT would just randomly say something, come up with something, you know, and respond. And, there's this one story I love to tell because it just really-- portrays really nicely the uncanny value of artificial intelligence and robots. So, I always had the tradition, whenever I would let hitchBOT go, we put them on the street, put it on the street, and I would just tap its little head and say, "Goodbye, hitchBOT," to it, right? So, and I did it when we let it go in the US, New York, Boston, so I tapped it on the head and said, "Goodbye, hitchBOT," and then it randomly responded, "I think I changed my mind," [Ed laughs] and, until today, I feel guilty, that I didn't listen to this little robot. 

 

Ed   

Wow. So, there is a certain level of trust. To conduct this experiment in the field, you have to have trust over so many factors that there's just no control over. 

 

Frauke   

Well, that's part of the experiment because our main question was, "Can robots trust humans?" right? So that was just, basically, playing on the question we should always ask, when it comes to technology, "Can we trust technology? Can we trust robots? Can we trust AI?" so by turning it around or upside down, we were hoping to get some new insights. [gentle electronic music continues] 

 

Ed   

I was thinking about, solely about, like, humans' relationship with robots, or hitchBOT in this case, and it never really-- it hadn't occurred to me that something like hitchBOT would actually bring people together, which probably is an even greater goal, right? 

 

Lauren   

I mean, we don't necessarily need robots to be replacing different, like, people in different professions, and I don't think that's the point, especially in social robots, and especially with hitchBOT. It's not meant to replace someone. It's meant to facilitate and meant to, you know, bring people closer together, which is really cool. 

 

Ed   

Absolutely. So what are some of the projects that you're both working on recently? And what's the goal of your research today? 

 

Lauren   

Oh, god. [laughing] Where to start? [all laugh] 

 

Frauke   

We still do a lot of robotics projects. What I'm doing now more, also, is looking into robots and artificial intelligence, but looking into a form or a side of ethics, too, where I'm really concerned again about, or interested in how humans perceive those robots and AI, and what are their actual needs, right? When it comes to ethics, what do they want from those robots? How do they want them to interact? What kind of data, for instance, they want to be transferred, or not? So, that is, I think, really, really interesting to look into... Of course, to look, when we look into the ethical sides, we often have very theory-driven approaches, which is also important, but I'm also very much interested in actually really, again, similar to hitchBOT, put a robot there and say, "So what do you want? How do you want to interact with that?" basically, and Lauren, of course, has her own robot project going on. 

 

Lauren   

Yeah, so I'm starting on my dissertation research now so, like, the big project, to finish up my PhD, and, for that, I'm looking at how we can focus on the user when designing a social robot, but specifically for people who are experiencing loneliness and isolation. So, you know, I kinda hit the jackpot in terms of timing for people having to experience loneliness and isolation, not what I would have anticipated, but hey, we all pivot, It's-- we're good, we're here. And, how can we design a robot that would actually be helpful for people, keeping, like, the people who are going to be using this robot, like, taking their perspective and turning that into a design, rather than, you know, designing something and testing it. So, it's really putting, like, the experts, as well as the users, at the forefront of creation and at the forefront of, like, designing something that they'll end up needing, while still focusing on, you know, interacting with a robot and, you know, hopefully, reducing loneliness, because we could all use a bit of that, putting users first, just like Frauke said, like, making sure that the people have their input, and that, when you're focusing on designing something new and pushing the boundaries of this, like, this field, making sure that we're not just looking at like, "Okay, what's the next technological advancement? What's the next software that we can put in here? What's the next this?" but instead, saying, "Okay, but, like, what need are we addressing? Like, what do people actually want?" before we jump off and start designing something, making sure it's something that people want and need. 

 

Lauren   

Yeah. So, this is also the-- I often get involved into really interesting discussions around, you know, robots as co-workers in the office, for example, and I think this is something we will have more and more, for sure. We already have that in certain areas, for instance, hospitals and other areas. The question though, is, I'm fairly sure.... if you really ask the people that will have to co-work with those robots, "How would you design such a robot?" you will get really interesting insights and ideas, and this is what we learned from hitchBOT. Another project, so hitchBOT was really nice, because we also were lucky because, then, people started reaching out and saying, "Hey, you seem to know how to build robots that people really like. Can you help us?" and again, as Lauren mentioned before, this is really great because, I mean, I do have a bit of a technical background, but we work mainly coming from the humanities and social sciences, so that's wonderful. So, we were, for instance, also for some time, we were also involved in coming up with design ideas for a robot that could go to the International Space Station and help astronauts with loneliness, for example, right? So all kinds of interesting fields we can think of, sending robots and interacting with people, rather than replacing them. 

 

Frauke   

This episode of Innovation Heroes is brought to you by HP Inc Notebooks on the Intel Evo Platform. Visit shi.com/hp to learn more. [upbeat music] 

 

Ed   

User experience is a major component of what drives social robotics, because what good is a robot companion if it's not designed to meet your needs and expectations? Which brings me to today's sponsor, HP Inc. They've been pondering a similar question, but about mobile computing, and now, after extensive research into how people work and play on their laptops, they have an answer... introducing the HP Notebooks on the Intel Evo platform. They're built to feel like an extension of you and ensure an all-round better user experience. Each HP Notebook with the Intel Evo Platform has passed over 100 tests to ensure it performs at the highest level in all scenarios and meets all specifications. Intel's 11th-generation technology, combined with improvements in HP Inc software, supercharges the entire HP Notebook product line. Wanna learn more about how HP Inc Notebooks and the Intel Evo Platform could improve your mobile experience? Get started today at shi.com/hp. [upbeat music] [gentle music] If you can't already tell, there's a lot of thought going into how we want robots to interact with us, but there's still some pieces in this puzzle that need to come together. Frauke and Lauren definitely have some great ideas about the work we need to do in order to make the next move forward. [gentle music] 

 

`come, too. We have more and more toys that become more and more intelligent, too, for example. 

 

Ed   

In terms of, you know, future innovation in this field, like, what's the next big thing that needs to be-- whether it's culture, technology, whatever it might be-- what's the next big thing that needs to be overcome to keep this field moving forward? 

 

Frauke   

From my perspective, it's more about how we-- how we build and design robots, how we conceptualize them. We need to work more closely together. People in mechatronics, in different engineering fields, with people like us, for example, we need to bring in again, more experiments like hitchBOT, where we get really surprised by how creative people become by designing them. See, the interesting thing is, I talked-- I get the chance to talk to lots of people, also entrepreneurs that build robots, and they told me that whenever you-- they do lots of surveys, asking people, "So what kind of robot would you like to have in your house?" And whereas most of the people say, "I'd love to have a robot in my house," when it comes to then the question, "So would you actually buy one and put them in your house?" most people would say, "Ah, maybe for my mom and her house, you know," so not in my backyard, right? [Ed laughs] So, it's really interesting. So we see, we still have a lot more to overcome, in terms of the actual acceptance that makes people feel safe and comfortable to have a robot in their house, and we, for instance, with hitchBOT, we didn't even ask them to take them into their houses, and that's what they kept doing all the time. HitchBOT was, you know, in lots of cars where they had kids and was sharing the back bench with kids and dogs, you know, and people just felt, for some reason, they felt at ease and encouraged, "Yes, I can trust this robot," and do that. So, we need to have, in terms of the extra technology development, of course, we need to have much better speech recognition, for example, right? However, I think it's more the conceptual thinking about bringing different disciplines even more together to build more acceptable robots. 

 

Lauren   

Getting multiple disciplines to actually talk to each other and work together is the number-one goal, right? Like, for us to talk to, for example, like, people in engineering, and then, for those people to also talk to people in psychology, and, like, building multidisciplinary teams can have, like, such incredible results. Right now, we have so many different streams going in different directions, and everyone's got different places they can publish, and different ways that they go about building this huge knowledge that is, like, human-robot interaction. But, as much as we're talking to each other, I don't think we're talking to each other enough, and part of that comes, as well, from finding sources of multidisciplinary funding, as well. Like, each group that's doing their own research and pushing forward is funded by a different area and finding different pools that can say, "Okay, well, we actually wanna fund all of this in one direction, linked together," that's also really helpful. So, more money going towards the arts is always something that [laughing] we can advocate for.  

 

Lauren   

[pensive music] Have you given any thought to the fact that, you know, robots are gonna have to interact, and gain trust from people who share, actually, not just different beliefs, but different facts in some cases? Is that something that's gonna have to be overcome? 

 

Frauke   

Yeah, that's a very important topic, I find, and there's different implications for, I think, for moving forward the research with robots. There's, obviously, different ways you can do that, and we've been lucky to also work with people, for instance, from theater, and so you can just try different personas with robots and watch how people respond to that. So, the one we chose for hitchBOT was really very well developed, and was more of just, "I'm just a little robot," you know? "I'm not very old. Teach me," right? "Show me about the world what you think is right or wrong," but we also made sure, for instance, because we wanted it to be accepted by a really large audience and all kinds of age groups, for instance, we made sure it wouldn't talk about politics, and, you know, wouldn't swear, [laughs] and difficult topics. But, what you are saying also relates to some insights that I'm very much interested, too, in, is how we even, if we try to be interdisciplinary in our research when it comes to robots, very often in the past, I think we've overlooked too much that we have really lots of different groups with very different or specific needs, how they want to interact and co-habit or co-work with a robot. So, I think something we've learned from the last couple of years is, for sure, that we have also, through the pandemic, we have a lot of, you know, what we call minorities in our societies that are often overlooked in their specific needs, right? And suddenly, we find out, "Wait a moment. They don't trust what we all trust, or they don't do the same thing?" That has always been a problem in all societies, I think, and if we want to design social robots that are appealing to everybody, we have to keep that in mind, and I think we have to become a lot more attentive to the different groups we have in our societies, and what are their specific ways to communicate, their specific beliefs about technology, right, and their specific experiences, for example. As researchers at universities, we are also challenged, right? So it's not just the industry, we always like to point our fingers to because, when we do our experiments, for example, we recruit from the people that are around us, so our students, but that is a very specific cohort, if you want to say, or demographic, and when it comes to, if it's just from one faculty, for instance, we probably also have even a more reduced demographic, right? So I think this is... Of course, it's not so easy to have a widely mixed sample, as we say in research, but I think we have to put a lot more-- we have to work on the awareness first of all, right? And second, because to us, it's just what we see every day in our workplace, so what was the problem here, right? And second of all, we have to work harder to overcome this. 

 

Ed   

Absolutely, and I'm sure working to overcome it, you guys will be doing that going forward. Being the movie buff that I am, I cannot get out of here without asking each of you, I mean, robots have been part of science fiction and movies since probably before there were even-- before there were talkies, as they say. Do you have-- identify favorite fictional robots? 

 

Lauren   

I absolutely do, yes. My favorite fictional robot is TARS from Interstellar. I absolutely love that robot just because it has sliding-scale personality, so you can make it more sarcastic, less sarcastic, more honest, less honest, and, like, that always fascinated me, but also, I just-- I love a sassy, sarcastic robot. That just-- that made my heart warm. 

 

Frauke   

I have to admit, so probably it's because how you're being introduced to something, so the first ever-- I think I remember a robot movie I watched was a long, long, long time ago when the very first time I came to the US, visiting a high-school friend, and they sat me down and made me watch Terminator, and I've been fascinated [laughing along with Ed] with that robot ever since. That accent, and I just love-- I love the fancy technology and how it just could see everything and analyze everything at once. I always wish I could do that. So, um, yeah. [Ed and Frauke laugh] 

 

Ed   

Well, Dr. Frauke Zeller, Lauren Dwyer. Thank you so much, Lauren. Good luck on your dissertation, and to both of you, just keep up the great work. This is a really fascinating field, and I just really appreciate you being here today. 

 

Lauren   

Thank you so much. 

 

Frauke   

Thank you so much for having us. [gentle music] 

 

Ed   

There's still a ways to go before we'll have a safe, trusted companion robot in every home, and before we can all afford such a robot. Whether they're helping us pilot spaceships, keeping our kids entertained on long car rides, or just helping us to feel a little less lonely, the robot companions we've been dreaming of are actually being built, and, with people like Frauke and Lauren leading the way, I feel comforted, even excited thinking about how the social robots of the future could help bring us humans closer together. [Innovation Heroes theme music] From all the humans and robots on our team, thanks for listening to this episode of Innovation Heroes. Next time on the podcast, I'll be joined by Sumit Puri, CEO and Co-Founder of Liqid, and Camberley Bates, Managing Director and Analyst at Evaluator Group. They both have been keeping a close eye on the semiconductor shortage and have some big ideas of what it could mean for the future of sustainable innovation. So tune in in two weeks. You won't wanna miss it. If you enjoyed this episode, then consider being our hero. Smash that like and subscribe button to Innovation Heroes, wherever you get your podcasts. [Innovation Heroes theme music continues] 

 

Ed   

Innovation Heroes is a Pilgrim Content production in collaboration with SHI. Our producers are Tobin Dalrymple and Jessica Schmidt. Our associate producer is Olivia Trono, with production assistance from Carmi Levy, Ronny Latimore, and Jane Norman. I'm your host, Ed McNamara, and I'll be back with another amazing story in two weeks.  

 

Ed   

This episode of Innovation Heroes has been brought to you by HP Inc Notebooks on the Intel Evo Platform. Learn more today by visiting shi.com/hp. 

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