Could there be machines among us that we don’t even notice, because they are so human? This is the premise behind Whitley’s new novel, titled "Hybrids." How would robots communicate with humans? How would humans feel if a robot touched them (this could be important in the future, when robots perform some of the jobs, such as nursing, that humans do now. They could also be sent into Japanese power plants to analyze the damage). NOTE: Subscribers can listen to all three of these Hybrids chapters, plus the "mind control" chapter of his new nonfiction sequel to Communion, "What is to Come."

The first barrier to human/machine communication is the way robots MOVE–in a way that is very different from us. Can robots "learn" to move in a more human manner? Researcher Michael Gielniak says, "Robot motion is typically characterized by jerky movements, with a lot of stops and starts, unlike human movement which is more fluid and dynamic. We want humans to interact with robots just as they might interact with other humans, so that it’s intuitive. Instead of having the robot move the exact same way every single time you want the robot to perform a similar action like waving, you always want to see a different wave so that people forget that this is a robot they’re interacting with."

When people communicate, the way they move has as much to do with what they’re saying as the words that come out of their mouths. But what about when robots communicate with people? How can robots use non-verbal communication to interact more naturally with humans? Researchers found that when robots move in a more human-like fashion, with one movement leading into the next, people can not only better recognize what the robot is doing. Computer Tech Andrea Thomaz says, "It’s important to build robots that meet people’s social expectations because we think that will make it easier for people to understand how to approach them and how to interact with them." For people, being touched can initiate many different reactions from comfort to discomfort, from intimacy to aggression.

But how might people react if they were touched by a robot? Would they recoil, or would they take it in stride? A new study found that people generally had a positive response toward being touched by a robotic nurse, but that their perception of the robot’s intent made a significant difference. Robot researcher Charlie Kemp says, "What we found was that how people perceived the intent of the robot was really important to how they responded. So, even though the robot touched people in the same way, if people thought the robot was doing that to clean them, versus doing that to comfort them, it made a significant difference in the way they responded and whether they found that contact favorable or not. in general, if people interpreted the touch of the nurse as being instrumental, as being important to the task, then people were OK with it. But if people interpreted the touch as being to provide comfort–people were not so comfortable with that." 

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