Robot vacuum cleaners can now simulate personality traits

Jake Foster May 8, 2020
Robot vacuum cleaners can now simulate personality traits

In these strange, unprecedented times, it can feel like the whole world is going mad. It is understandable to feel a bit unsettled given the circumstances.

This story will do nothing to alleviate your unease. But, as it turns out, your robot vacuum cleaner could probably empathise to a reasonable degree.

Researchers from Oregon State University College of Engineering have found that simple robot vacuum cleaners can successfully simulate emotions and even personalities, using movement alone. In a recent study, they programmed the appliances with a set of movements intended to reflect certain personality traits.

By adjusting certain motion features, such as speed, directional changes, and whether the hoovers approached humans, researchers managed to simulate the personalities of three of the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. And thus, Happy, Sleepy and Grumpy were deployed.

Human participants were asked to watch the robots as they moved around a room and then rate their perceived politeness, friendliness and intelligence.

Assistant professor of Computer Science at Oregon State University, Heather Knight, who led the research, explained: “The Happy robot sought people out with smooth motions at moderate speed.”

“The Sleepy robot also sought people out, but with delays and slower accelerations. The Grumpy robot avoided people while using erratic motions and a range of velocities. Those simple variations told the people a lot.”

The participants could correctly infer the personality of each of the robot vacuum cleaners based on how they moved. Happy was rated as being the friendliest and smartest, whereas Grumpy was rated as the least polite and least friendly.

The Future

One of the main goals of this research is to eventually be able to build robots with distinct personalities. That could make them more effective in their human-facing roles, according to Professor Knight.

“In future, we hope to extend this work to the other four Dwarfs and study how personality could positively impact the specific tasks a robot is taking on around people.”

This research could have huge implications for the future of robotics, as public distrust of artificial intelligence remains an issue. With the ever-increasing presence of robots in our everyday lives, it makes sense to give them their own personalities, to make them a bit friendlier and less dead behind the artificial eyes.

So, in 50 years’ time, when your robot barista asks you about your day, you can go home and thank Happy, Sleep and Grumpy…and your vacuum cleaner.

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Science Communicator and Science Museum Explainer, specialising in Physics, Astronomy, Spaceflight and Robotics.