People have not accepted robots deep down at heart

Nowadays, industrial robots are indispensable, and there are high expectations for self-driving cars.

On the other hand, humanoid robots, whose popularization into human living spaces has been attempted for many years, have often been discussed, but their popularity has not progressed.

However, in Japanese society, where the labor force is rapidly decreasing, there may be an increasing need for robots to do household chores and miscellaneous tasks at home. I think that meeting this need will become an important challenge.

In the first place, why is it that robots are not permeating human living spaces? The reasons for this are often technical problems or the inability to find killer applications.

But the biggest reason, in my opinion, is that people don’t really accept robots deep down at heart, i.e. it’s people’s perception of robots.

In other words, the psychology of people who accept robots, which belongs to a dimension completely different from the development of technology related to robots, is a factor hindering the spread of robots in daily life.

I have been engaged in research activities for the development of robots for many years, but rather, I have come to think it is necessary to focus more on the importance of human psychology, so I am currently conducting research on it.

In fact, there have been studies on human psychology toward robots for a long time. One such study is the “uncanny valley” problem.

This is the result of a survey of how people feel when robots become more human-like, and the graph shows the degree of human likability for robots on the vertical axis with the degree of human-likeness on the horizontal axis.

First of all, in the case of industrial robots, for example, that have no human-likeness at all, there is little human likability for them. From there, as robots become more human-like, the human likability increases.

However, when the human-likeness reaches a certain level, the likability drops sharply, falls below the level of industrial robots, and then rises sharply toward 100% of humans themselves. This sharp trough line is what is called the “uncanny valley”.

In other words, the closer a robot is to a real human, the more sensitive people are to differences from a real human, and if they feel uncomfortable with it, they feel not only far from likeable, but actually negative – creepy and weird.

It is the same as feeling uncomfortable with a halfway lifelike design, while many people find, for example, a stuffed toy with a deformed design to be cute and familiar.

Furthermore, the problem with the human-likeness of robots is not just its making people feel creepy.

For example, when a person meets a humanoid robot, he expects it to function in a similar way to a human. However, if it turns out to be short of his expectation, his evaluation of the robot drops sharply, resulting in disappointment.

In contrast, expectations are low for a robot that looks like a toy or just a mechanical box, so when a person comes into contact with a function that surprises him, his evaluation of the robot increases dramatically.

This is called the adaptation gap hypothesis. In other words, making the appearance of humanoids raises the bar for human expectations, and a negative adaptation gap occurs if functions are deemed insufficient.

I believe that studying these problems of the human mind leads to more effective methods and development of more appropriate robots for promoting robots into human living spaces.

What is required of humans and robots is different

So, what does a human perceive a robot to be in the first place? To explore this, we are conducting research by using robots in philosophical thought experiments.

One of these is the “trolley problem”. Many of you may know of this problem, but there are five people ahead on a track where a trolley is running at a tremendous speed because the trolley is out of control, and they will be run over and killed if nothing is done.

However, there is a turnout on the track, which can be operated to change the course of the trolley to another track. But there is another person on the other track.

In this situation, assuming that the other person is a human or a robot on the side of the turnout, the subjects are asked to evaluate the actions in the case of the person and in the case of the robot.

In the case of a human, there are many answers blaming the choice to operate the turnout, whereas in the case of a robot, there are many answers blaming the choice not to operate the turnout.

In other words, if a man does not operate the turnout, he will leave five people to die, but it is a situation that can’t be helped, and conversely, operating the turnout is considered to have chosen to kill one person in order to help five people, which is subject to criticism.

In the case of a robot, however, the opposite is true: leaving five people to die without taking any action is the target of criticism. The results reveal that people see robots as something different from humans.

In fact, this trolley problem is a very critical proposition, but even if you set up a lighter challenge that occur in daily life, the results show that humans and robots are required to do different things.

Furthermore, the results are virtually the same in Japan and the United States. In other words, you can assume that there is no difference due to the culture or a religious view.

In other words, the problem of perception of robots may be a deep-rooted problem in the depths of the human mind.

Unseen robots coexist with humans

So, considering the psychology of humans, is it impossible to bring robots into our living spaces?

For example, there are hotels that have gained attention because humanoid robots are carrying out some tasks. There seems to be a coexistence of humans and robots there.

However, since the hotel itself is an extraordinary living space, I think humanoid robots are perceived as a kind of attraction.

If the humanoid robots were in our daily living spaces, it might be creepy like the uncanny valley problem, or it might be a disappointingly sluggish move as per the adaptation gap hypothesis.

In addition, robots with toy animal designs have recently become a hot topic as home robots. This type of robot seems to be aiming at a place where expectations are not high because of its design, and in that sense, I think that it makes good use of the adaptation gap hypothesis.

However, this type of robot will still not be appreciated unless some merit or value is found in daily life in the future. In other words, it remains to be seen whether such robots will become more widespread.

Rather, it may be a cleaning robot that is of interest. Actually, I have cleaning robots in my house and have them clean my room every day.

In that sense, they coexist with people in a living space, but they are active when I am not at home. If they start moving when I am in the living room, I will stop them because they are noisy.

In other words, the cleaning robots are doing their work on their own without my knowledge, so the coexistence is established. This may be the essence of the human-robot relationship here.

As a matter of fact, in the field of nursing care, it is more accepted that a human caregiver wears a machine such as a power assist and works instead of a robot itself.

In other words, it is a system to disassemble and utilize the technology without being bound by the form of a robot. Again, robots will coexist in a way that is unseen to humans.

Research on robots has mainly been driven by technological development in the engineering field. In fact, today’s robotics technology has reached a very high level. But even so, the reality is that robots are not widespread in our daily living spaces.

Looking at these factors from a different point of view, such as human psychology, rather than focusing only on further technological development, is a way to shed light on issues from a different angle, which can lead to different solutions.

I think this approach can be applied not only to the problem of robots but also to our daily life and work. It is important to review difficult issues from a different perspective.

In particular, philosophy tends to be thought of as something you learn in school and as useless in real life, but things are made up in relation to human thoughts. I think philosophy has a lot of clues that provide a basis for thinking about difficult problems.

* The information contained herein is current as of July 2020.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.