One of the things I've come to realize in the course of this project is how rewarding it can be to look closely at humans' interactions with computers, mobile devices, and other technologies. Cyberspace, I'm arguing, made sense in a world in which getting online was hard, and there were clearer behavioral divides between the everyday world that we inhabit naturally, and the online "world" that we visited via computer modem. Today, things like the cellphone, iPhone, and Intel's new Mobile Information Devices, combined with the proliferation of wireless networks and always-on services, are all eroding that sense of the digital world as something separate from regular life.

Today I saw another example of how changes in the ways we engage with technologies can break down conceptual divisions– this time involving the divide between people and robots. New Scientist reports on a project by Georgia Tech researchers Ja-Young Sung and Rebecca Grinter that examines how people interact with the Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. Apparently a lot of owners give their Roomba a name, dress it up, or even take it on vacations:

"Dressing up Roomba happens in many ways," Sung says. People also often gave their robots a name and gender, according to the survey… which Sung presented at the Human-Robot Interaction conference earlier this month in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Kathy Morgan, an engineer based in Atlanta, said that her robot wore a sticker saying "Our Baby", indicating that she viewed it almost as part of the family. "We just love it. It frees up our lives from so much cleaning drudgery," she says.

Sung believes that the notion of humans relating to their robots almost as if they were family members or friends is more than just a curiosity. "People want their Roomba to look unique because it has evolved into something that's much more than a gadget," she says. Understanding these responses could be the key to figuring out the sort of relationships people are willing to have with robots.

Until now, robots have been designed for what the robotics industry dubs "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs, like welding cars, defusing bombs or mowing lawns. Even the name robot comes from robota, the Czech word for drudgery. But Sung's observations suggest that we have moved on. "I have not seen a single family who treats Roomba like a machine if they clothe it," she says. "With skins or costumes on, people tend to treat Roomba with more respect."

So as they move from environments that we don't like into places that are more familiar, and from doing work we hate to work we just dislike, two things happen to our perception of robots: their social status goes up, and they become more familiar. But this doesn't just happen with robots who are doing "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs: humans who are doing those jobs can develop bonds with those robots, too.

US soldiers serving in Iraq and interviewed last year by The Washington Post developed strong emotional attachments to Packbots and Talon robots, which dispose of bombs and locate landmines, and admitted feeling deep sadness when their robots were destroyed in explosions. Some ensured the robots were reconstructed from spare parts when they were damaged and even took them fishing, using the robot arm's gripper to hold their rod.

Figuring out just how far humans are willing to go in shifting the boundaries towards accepting robots as partners rather than mere machines will help designers decide what tasks and functions are appropriate for robots. Meanwhile, working out whether it's the robot or the person who determines the boundary shift might mean designers can deliberately create robots that elicit more feeling from humans. "Engineers will need to identify the positive robot design factors that yield good emotions and not bad ones – and try to design robots that promote them," says Sung.

This is not to say that we're starting to think of robots as more like people, but at least we're starting to treat them a little more like, say, pets: they're not us, but they're still part of our emotional lives, and we have some appreciation for what they do for us.

(* A reference to Stephen Colbert's great description of what would make his show different: "Other shows read the news to you. We feel the news at you.")

[To the tune of Mono, "Lost Snow," from the album "Ex Plex, Los Angeles, September 24, 2005".]

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