London, September 7 : A roboticist has said that finding out exactly how fictional robots influence people can help engineers build real ones.
According to a report in New Scientist, the roboticist in question, Bill Smart, suggests that fictional robots like the ones in the movie "Wall E", can teach engineers how to build actual robots.
Smart and literature researcher Lara Bovilsky, both at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, recently held a workshop on the topic at the RO-MAN conference on human-robot interactions in Munich, Germany.
"Most people have never seen a robot before. Their experiences - such as they are - all come from movies or literature," said Smart. "That affects the way people react to real robots," he added.
"People have a theory in their head about how something will behave, and if a robot doesn't fit with that theory, people get nervous," he explained.
For example, not everyone responded well to a robot built by Smart and colleagues that moves around a room composing and then snapping photos of people.
"People that thought of it as a camera with legs were really pleased, but people that thought of it as a photographer were really disappointed," said Smart.
Smart thinks those raised expectations were down to the impact of unrealistically human-like robots in movies and books. People don't really know what they are. C-3PO in Star Wars is very humanlike, intelligent and capable, but real robots are not like that at all," he said.
Instead of just forcing people to alter their expectations, Smart thinks it makes sense to study how people's ideas about robots are influenced by fiction.
That knowledge could be used to design robots that make the most of those expectations.
"My real concern is to get people and robots to play together nicely," said Smart.
According to Noel Sharkey, a roboticist at Sheffield University, all robot researchers have experienced the way that people's behaviour towards robots is influenced by their experiences with science fiction.
"Attempting to come up with robot design ideas based on studying that sci-fi influence is an interesting idea," he said.
Engineers might learn from fictional robots in other ways.
"It would be worthwhile to study the way computer animators make us connect with simple, non-human objects. Pixar's WALL-E, for example, is easy to connect with," said Smart.
There are precedents for roboticists working with Hollywood, he points out.
The expressive eyes of the ground-breaking MIT robot Kismet, with a face designed to express emotions, came from a Hollywood effects company.