Research Proves Your Roomba Has a Personality

Scientists programmed robot vacuums with personalities from Snow White's dwarves

Posted May 24, 2020

Have you ever suspected felt like your Roomba had a personality? You are not alone. Researchers who agree with you have confirmed it. They found that people can tell what kind of personality a robot vacuum has, just by the way it moves. And when they programmed the bots to mimic one of Snow White’s seven dwarves, people guessed which one correctly.

People love their robot vacuums. There’s your coworker, who shares stories of the cute things their Roomba did last night. Or the beloved DJ Roomba episodes on Parks and Recreation. Even twitter is peppered with entertaining moments in human-robot vacuum relationships. For instance, @thatfoxc tweets, "I'm starting to think my #roomba has it out for me. Literally it will be going straight and make a hard left right at me. #calmdown." Maybe she got Grumpy. 

It all seems silly, until you get your own. Suddenly you too are convinced that the little disc-shaped robot who eats dust balls has a relationship with you. You are not imagining things; scientists agree with you. And they are studying the way humans interact with robots. 

Research on robot vacuums is more active than you realize. 

Robot vacuum research is nothing new, and neither is research into human-robot relations. Researchers want to know what makes humans trust robots. You read that correctly: A huge goal in robot development is to build trust with people.

In the past, research has shown that people who are lonely can relate to their Roomba like a friend, especially if it looks like it’s smiling. And people’s sense of connection with robots may be intensified by high-pressure situations. In another study, highly trained soldiers who worked with robots to disarm bombs appeared to form an emotional attachment. The soldiers knew their robot was a tool but treated it more like a pet. If their robot stopped working, they might say, ‘poor little guy,’ or even have a funeral for it.

Researchers programmed robot vacuums to act like the seven dwarves. 

In a new study, researchers wanted to know how people perceived the movement patterns of robot vacuums. After all, we can tell a lot about how people are feeling by the way they move.

The team used an ‘expressive autonomous motion generation system’ to program Neato Botvacs with movement patterns. Using path shape, acceleration, and movement toward or away from people, the robots imitated three of the seven dwarves.

According to Heather Knight, assistant professor of computer science at Oregon State University, “The Happy robot sought people out with smooth motions at moderate speed. The Sleepy robot also sought people out, but with delays and slower accelerations. The Grumpy robot avoided people while using erratic motions and a range of velocities. Those simple variations told the people a lot.”

Study participants were indeed able to correctly identify the robot vacuums as Happy, Grumpy or Sleepy, just based on their movement. They also rated their politeness, friendliness, and intelligence. Study participants rated Happy as friendly and intelligent. However, they found Grumpy impolite and unfriendly.

The perception of intelligence came as a surprise to the study authors. The paper reported, “motion style had an unexpected impact on people’s intelligence ratings of the robot, which could potentially be used to decrease user trust in autonomous systems in cases where there is unreliable perception.”

Based on this study, innovators who work to build collaboration between people and robots will need to consider motion patterns. But this study also tells us something about ourselves. Our brain developed patterns of recognition in a world where what moved was alive. We learned that other creatures’ movement revealed their intentions. When we react to a robot, we are providing a window into how our own minds developed.

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