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I Am Mother: Physical Human-Robot Interaction

I Am Mother is the Hilary Swank-Rose Byrne movie streaming on Netflix, where a robot, named Mother (Rose Byrne), raises a girl, appropriately named Daughter, as part of a plan to repopulate the Earth after an extinction event. Or maybe not, once a survivor (Hilary Swank) shows up and starts challenging some of the fundamental assumptions. While it is neither a great scifi movie nor a bad one, it is a good way to jump start thinking about physical human-robot interaction, also known as Physical HRI.

Physical human-robot interaction is about humans and robots physically interacting. One example is robot surgery, where considerable effort is expended to make sure the robot uses the right amount of pressure, stays within bounds, etc. This sounds easy if the application is something like an automated robot precisely hollowing out a bone so that a hip replacement can be inserted with a better fit. It gets more complicated with a device such as a DaVinci robot where a surgeon is controlling it. What if the surgeon makes a mistake? Is distracted and makes a sudden jerking motion? Yes, we’d like the robot in those cases to be smarter than the doctor. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

A study of 10,064 robot surgeries between 2000 and 2013 showed that 144 people died from errors and malfunctions during robotic surgery and 1,391 had injuries. 144 of 10,064 deaths is a pretty low percentage (1.4%) but not much comfort if your loved one fell into the 1.4% or was “only” injured.

Another type of physical interaction concerns robot safety. Factory robots have killed at least 7 workers- List Verse includes them in their Top 10 People Killed By Robots list (Or at least 36 if if you go in for a recent conspiracy theory, where robots killed 29 Japanese scientists in 2017)

Most industrial robots work in a cage or a cordoned off area so that no one should be able to enter the work envelope. Robots like the Kiva/Amazon warehouse robots also move in areas where people aren’t supposed to be. There is a significant amount of research into enabling factory robots to detect a person on contact and then react by deforming or loosening up its joints- compliance- so that a collision will not injure the person, or not as much.

But what about self-driving cars, which have already hit pedestrians? That’s bad. But my friends at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where lots of self-driving cars are being tested, say the car is becoming hated. It’s not because of the deaths or the Silicon Valley Bro culture, it’s because pedestrians know that the cars will stop or stay stopped at a traffic light so you can just jay walk or ignore the little red hand and just keep walking. That creates a traffic jam. And humans hate traffic jams!

A third type of physical human-robot interaction involves a much more benign form of contact; exoskeletons and prosthesis. Exoskeletons and prosthesis are tricky because the physical HRI isn’t just that they fit and are comfortable but also about how the exoskeleton interprets cues from the human. Should the exoskeleton bend or be rigid for a particular movement?

I Am Mother illustrates a fourth type of physical human-robot interaction: social interaction. Mother picks up, holds, and physically nurtures baby Daughter. This is more than physical dexterity, the android is cleverly designed to have warming pads on her chest to simulate the body temperature of a human. The social aspects of physical interaction are as important as the ability to pick up a baby. Remember all the studies about chimps being raised by hairless surrogates and going crazy? Nice touch.

Overall, I recommend I Am Mother. It is a good enough popcorn movie to watch with tweens and teens, and an opportunity to think about all the ways we would come into physical contact with a robot.

If you want to learn more about physical HRI, you might want to listen to a keynote talk by Professor Alessandro De Luca or check out the chapter in The Springer Handbook of Robotics. Plus, we have a topic page on Exoskeletons on the RTSF website.

- Robin

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