Scanlan, the Star Wars designer, believes that people have an emotional connection to the droids from the movies because designers give the bots anthropomorphic, or human-like, characteristics. “They’re full of personality, like clever children who are quite mischievous,” he says.
People develop similar connections when they interact with real-world robots that resemble animals. One example is Aibo. The technology company Sony created the robo-dog to act as a human companion, just like a real pet. Gail Melson, a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, discovered that children could easily relate to the robot because of its pup-like features.
“We found that children treated Aibo not so much as a machine but as an interactive partner,” she says. Although the kids knew they were playing with a robot, they felt a connection because the robot looked and acted like a real dog. And like a real pet, the kids felt a responsibility toward Aibo, saying it wouldn’t be right to get rid of the machine if they got bored with it.
Personal robots aren’t being designed just as emotional companions. Some help their owners with physical tasks. Henny Admoni, another roboticist from Carnegie Mellon, develops assistive robots. They can grasp and manipulate objects to help people who have difficulties performing everyday tasks like drinking from a cup, eating a meal, and getting dressed. “Robots don’t get tired and can be infinitely patient,” says Admoni. “They allow people with disabilities to be more independent.”