Alumni, students and staff gathered in the Discovery Building Tuesday evening to learn about robot-human interactions. Computer Sciences Professor Bilge Mutlu gave a talk titled “What Can Robots Tell Us About Our Humanity,” which explored research on human fascination with robotic technology.

Human interaction with robots that can speak, maintain eye contact and exhibit human body language characteristics has been studied around the world for the past two decades, Mutlu said. He presented studies from Japan, the U.S. and Europe.

There are five overlapping theories, each with supporting evidence, as to why this fascination exists. The consensus Multu proposed is that humans are fascinated by technology and create things that mimic themselves.

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Observing how robots imitate and interact with humans in non-humanlike ways raises questions about the differences in behaviors. Exploring these questions can lead to a greater understanding of why humans behave and interact in certain ways, Mutlu said. 

This comes with both social and technological challenges — human social cues are not universal across cultures. A study done in one country may not be comparable with an identical one done elsewhere, Mutlu said.

Additionally, researchers had to “fake” robotic functions in order to study interactions before certain technologies developed.

For example, one method allowed researchers to study facial recognition and social cues before recognition software existed. Researchers outside the experiment environment would observe people’s responses to the robot and tell the robot to recognize them. Today, the software is built in, and robots can autonomously recognize different people.

Mutlu’s research mainly focuses on assistive technology. As an industrial engineer and computer scientist, he designs robots not for AI or sentience purposes, but as tools. 

While science fiction is inspired by and inspires scientific research, robots are not designed to destroy humanity, Mutlu said. Robotic technology that improves human lives is what robot design looks like in the real world. 

“No one would buy a robot that’s trying to kill them,” Mutlu said.

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First, technology developed to a point where people could push buttons to automate tasks, Mutlu said. Now, speech conveys commands to AI assistants. Technology will likely develop to where robots can anticipate our intentions.

“For example, in the morning, I wake up, get dressed and go downstairs to the kitchen to make a coffee.” Mutlu said. “As technology develops, one day my smart device could start making coffee when it senses environmental cues, such as me coming down the stairs.”

Mutlu said he hopes to see this technology in his lifetime.

The public lecture was the third “Crossroads of Ideas” talk highlighting recipients of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation faculty awards. The award is given to outstanding UW researchers.