That’s a huge oversimplification,” Maja Mataric said. “Engineering has moved forward. We have models of emotion and we know how to create machines that appear emotional. Yes, they don’t feel the way people feel. But how do people feel? Science doesn’t really understand that yet.”
Mataric is professor of computer science, neuroscience and robotics at the University of Southern California, and a founder of the field of socially assistive robotics. I called her because I wanted to know why robots are so freaking cute.
A juvenile question, probably, given that Mataric is busy using novel insights about human cognition and behavior to craft robots that help people lead safer, fuller lives. But, as it happens, cuteness isn’t entirely irrelevant.
Consider BB-8, WALL-E, Baymex — the list goes on. Despite fatalistic headlines declaring robots will soon commandeer our jobs and steal our girlfriends, it’s the brave, sweet-hearted cinematic robots that tend to stick in our brains.
That stickiness often makes cute robots well-suited for socially assistive roles, Mataric said.
“Cuteness, in particular, is a large part of social function because we, as social creatures, are wired to recognize features of cuteness and naturally respond positively to them. That’s why babies look the way they look.”
Much like robots, humans are wired to respond a certain way given certain inputs. When designers and engineers study that wiring to make products more appealing, you get the emerging field of user experience, or UX, design.
In Mataric’s field, a cute robot may make users more willing to practice social skills like eye contact or take medications on time. For consumer robotics, cuteness may make people more willing to buy and use a product, or — and I’m spitballing here — tech reporters more likely to develop a sustained obsession with large-eyed robotic concierges.
“You say, ‘They end up being so darn cute.’ I don’t think they just end up being cute. It takes design effort to make a robot cute and not creepy,” Mataric told me.
“It’s actually awfully easy to get it wrong. So I want to give credit to folks if their robots look cute, since that takes work.”
For many roboticists, cuteness isn’t a concern. A robot that performs repetitive tasks in a fulfillment center needs to focus on avoiding collisions with humans — not winning their affection.
Even robots that interface directly with humans often don’t need to be cute. In eldercare, for instance, some research indicates people are less receptive to suggestions made by cute robots. (Would you want this thing giving you directives?)
The study of human-robot interaction, or HRI, is too new and too broad to yield any definitive insight on the optimal look for a certain type of robot. That means product teams, like the one that created the small, wheeled automaton Misty, get to experiment.
Misty is a product of Misty Robotics, a spinoff of toy robot company Sphero. She’s got a big head and large eyes displayed on an LCD screen — quintessentially cute, baby-like qualities — as well as an array of movements and sounds that help her show “emotion.”
When it comes to function, Misty is largely a blank slate. She’s intended as a platform for developers to create their own skills and use cases. That means her designers had to make her versatile enough to fit a variety of environments. And appealing enough to draw the right kind of attention.
At first, Misty Robotics founder and head of product Ian Berstein figured they’d make Misty look like. Sphero, his former company’s eponymous round, faceless robot that communicates only with motion and lights. Then, drawing on character fundamentals he studied under his one-time mentor, Disney CEO Robert Iger, he reconsidered.
“When you only have a rolling movement and an. LED, it’s really hard to convey emotion and create that connection with the user,” he said. “When we thought about Misty, we knew we wanted to put some human elements, but not make it humanoid.”