Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

People Prefer a Human Face for Robots

By Stephen Luntz

Elderly people prefer to get medical assistance from a robot that displays a human face, according to Dr Elizabeth Broadbent of the University of Auckland’s Department of Psychological Medicine.

“It’s important for robot designers to know how to make robots that interact effectively with humans so that people feel comfortable interacting with the robots,” Broadbent says. She is part of a team that has used robots to assist elderly patients with tasks such as checking blood pressure and providing reminders to take medication.

At this stage Broadbent says most of the functions the robots can perform could also be done by a static computer, but many elderly people without experience using computers respond well to a machine that can come to meet them. The robot is headed by a screen on which Broadbent displayed either a human face, a silver-coloured set of simplified features reminiscent of science fiction robots, or no face at all.

Three-fifths of participants indicated a preference for the robot with a human face, 30% liked the blank screen and only 10% preferred the silvered simulacrum – perhaps reflecting the experiences of filmgoers who are disturbed by faces that are somewhat, but not quite, human. “We considered using Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for the face,” Broadbent says, “but in the end went with an image of a more neutral set of features”.

The University of Auckland is also experimenting with other robotic assistants in nursing homes, including one that looks and sounds like a baby harp seal and can respond to touch and posture. One version detects signals from a watch that includes an accelerometer and will sometimes recognise when a patient falls.

So far, however, the robots can only alert human assistants and not come to the aid of someone in need. Nevertheless, Broadbent says the social bond that sometimes forms between human and robot is proving beneficial.