Killer apps for social robots?

Any research field advances more quickly when those in the field understand what the potential applications are.

Social robotics suffers from a lack of clarity about what the payoffs will be, odd considering how much attention and worry is being devoted to ‘artifical intelligence’ (which mostly seems to mean clever heuristics).

A count of the published literature shows that the applications that are most in the minds of researchers are: care of the elderly, and care of children with autism spectrum disorders. This seems rather a limited vision.

The main advantages of a robot, compared to conventional software tools, are:

  • They can be instructed more as we would instruct another human (and may eventually be able to infer instructions, i.e. desires);
  • They are general purpose, so one robot may be able to replace functionality that would otherwise require multiple specialised devices (much as cell phones have replaced mp3 players, GPS and Satnav devices, radios, and some electronic games);
  • They can (potentially) do things that are hard to mechanise now, for example house cleaning, and personal care, especially in institutional settings;
  • They can be prosthetics for our physical limitations (moving heavy furniture, delivering packages place to place, not just door to door), our mental limitations (reminding us of things we may have forgotten, well beyond what dayplanners and alarm clocks currently do), and our social limitations (chaperoning/livening up dates, helping with negotiations).
  • They can provide security as police, security guards, and bouncers do now.

and there are no doubt many other possibilities. Focusing on some of these possibilities would help to guide researchers in (a) building useful pieces, (b) designing with layers of abstraction, and (c) shooting for complete systems.

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