Sammy Nickalls
August 09, 2015 11:59 am

You’ve probably heard about hitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot created by Canadian scientists to test the kindness of strangers — and how it was vandalized in Philadelphia. Yeah, it was meant to travel the country, but it never even left the East Coast. (This is why we can’t have nice things.) Now, Japan has engineered a robot that is less likely to get vandalized. . . because it can run away from human bullies.

The new runaway robot is not in response to hitchBOT’s demise; rather, scientists started working on the project after conducting a study called “Escaping from Children’s Abuse of Social Robots,” in which researchers from Osaka University, Ryukoku, Tokai University, and ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communications Laboratories patrolled a mall in Osaka with a remotely-operated Robovie 2 robot. The robot was tasked with engaging with customers in a mall in Osaka, but it was discovered that kids weren’t exactly nice to the robotic pal.

Whenever someone would stand in the robot’s way, it politely asked the person to step aside; if the person did not listen, it simply moves in the opposite direction. However, researchers found that kids were really entertained by giving the poor robot a hard time. Not only would they refuse to let the robot pass, but they often would become violent, kicking, punching, and shaking the poor thing. They even yelled insults at the robot, one kid calling the robot an “idiot” eight times. Kids can be so cruel sometimes.

The researchers weren’t just putting this robot through abuse for the heck of it; they were actually trying to figure out how to help the robot avoid and escape such situations. The researchers found that the violent behavior started when there were no adults nearby. (Makes sense — no child wants to get Mom or Dad angry at them.)

Then, the researchers programmed the robot to run away from humans below a certain height (4 feet 6 inches) and toward taller people. The robot also includes interaction time and pedestrian density to calculate its probability of being accosted by a large group of tiny people. So now, robots can officially run away from bullies.

Another interesting thing about the research: When the kids who became violent were asked about their view of the robot, the majority said they perceived it to be humanlike and thought their behavior would inflict stress and / or pain. So pretty much, they think these robots are humans, and they’re being legit bullies. While this is pretty depressing, it shines some light on empathy, suggesting that it may be something we learn as we age — especially since adults, especially empathetic adults, were much more likely to treat the robot with respect.

Poor robot guy! We’re so happy that he can run away now. Maybe next, they’ll program robots to tattletale. That’ll stop those tiny jerks from, well, being tiny jerks.

(Images via YouTube.)

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