Definition

social robot

Contributor(s): Dennis Shiao, Ivy Wigmore

A social robot is an artificial intelligence (AI) system that is designed to interact with humans and other robots. In the workplace, social robots have the potential to take over entire job functions, such as greeting and basic customer service. In the home, social robots could become functional enough to serve as a member of the family and be purposely designed with unique personalities and quirks to engage family members.

Examples of social robots include:

  • hitchBOT - a social robot that attempted to hitchhike across the United States in 2014.
  • Kismet - a robot head that understands and exhibits emotion when interacting with humans.
  • Tico - a robot developed to improve children's motivation in the classroom.
  • Bandit - a social robot designed to teach social behavior to autistic children.
  • Jibo is a consumer-oriented social robot. Jibo understands speech and facial expressions and seeks to form relationships with the family that adopts it.

A social robot may be remotely controlled, perhaps serving as a telepresence representative at a business meeting or in the home or as a companion in a healthcare facility. Other social robots are autonomous systems with local AI that allows them to interact independently in response to cues from people and things in their environment. This type of autonomous robot is sometimes referred to as a smart robot. Smart robot intelligence is typically based on a cognitive computing model that simulates human thought processes. Cognitive computing involves machine learning systems that use data mining, pattern recognition and natural language processing (NLP) to mimic the way the human brain works.

Use cases for social robots

Early generations of robots were designed for autonomous tasks, such as exploring the ocean floor, supplementing the manufacturing process or helping to fulfill warehouse orders. Over the past 20 years, researchers have developed more general purpose robots that model the behavior of human beings. Some of the ways social robots are used today include:

  • Tutoring - provide learners with a fun, interactive way to practice and master new learning skills
  • Telepresence -- provide remote meeting attendees with a physical presence in a business meeting
  • Companionship - provide emotional support to the young, elderly or disabled.
  • Customer engagement -- provide potential customers with information about products and services, store hours and pricing.

Advantages and disadvantages of social robots

While social robots employ leading edge technology, they’re not humans and lack empathy, emotion and reasoning. They handle the routine tasks they are programmed to do, but may respond unpredictably to situations for which they were not trained.

As with any technology, robots are susceptible to hardware malfunctions and failures and may involve a high cost to repair and maintain. In addition, humans that develop an over-dependence on social robots, such as for emotional companionship, may miss out on the person-to-person interactions that are the essence of the human condition.

Future of social robots

Social robots can already be found in the home and the workplace and they will likely play a more prominent role in each venue as the technology improves.

Watch as Marco Tempest works with Baxter in his TED talk:

This was last updated in May 2019

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