What are Social Robots?

We are all familiar with robots in films. They are the multi-purpose helpers (see Robot, in Lost in Space), the unemotional crew mate (Data in Star Trek: the Next Generation), the murderous killers (in Blade Runner) or the threat to the human race (in I, Robot).

We are also familiar with real robots. They are the things that build our cars, that can vacuum our floors, or even defuse bombs. What they do not do, the thing that all examples from film and TV do, is interact with us, as humans.

If we want robots to work efficiently alongside us, to perform useful tasks that require co-operative action with humans, next generation robots will require a social mechanism. For that matter, they do not have to be robots, it could be something as large as a building or as small as a kitchen appliance, but the key is that these artificial agents exist and operate in our world, so need to be sensitive to, and aware of, our needs and goals.

What interests us as educators about Social Robots?

We are a group of academics, teachers, researchers and educators based in the Capital Region of New York State. Our goal, funded by the NSF, is to build a community of people interested in using Social Robots as a platform to deliver an education in Computer Science.

Robots are an exciting platform on which we can deliver a Computer Science curriculum, using them as devices to explore modules such as programming, algorithms, planning, vision, speech, human computer interaction, search, machine learning and knowledge representation and reasoning.

Further, with specific interfaces which hide the complexity of programming, they can serve as exciting tools to teach core CS principles to students from a range of backgrounds, who might not think of Computer Science as interesting, or relevant to their chosen course of study. For example, using appropriate hardware, we can address issues of design and how they impact software design.

Social Robots are those where the role of the robot in society helps define their design (imagine the difference in shape or texture between a robot for pre-school children vs. a robotic waiter), social interaction capabilities (a robot tour guide vs. a robot fitness instructor, for example) and level of autonomy (a inter-planetary explorer vs. a robotic surgeon).

We want to appeal to students in Art, Design, Psychology, Philosophy and Communication, to name just a few, as well as those from Science and Engineering.