Researchers in Holland are making robots friendlier by teaching them to express emotional body language. Mimicking typically ‘positive’ body language actually improved the relationship between the robot and humans in a university lecture hall where the robot was teaching.

The researchers had graduate students attend lectures from their robots, and the students significantly preferred the robot displaying ‘positive’ body language over the one employing negative expressions.

“This was a large effect. The students applauded the robot following the ‘positive’ lecture, and they all wanted to make a selfie with the robot afterwards. This was not the case for the other ‘negative’ group.”

That’s a pretty big difference in response, and it makes some sense. Don’t we describe our worst college lecturers as robotic and our best as animated?

Where this kind of emotional readout could really make the difference is in elementary schools. Whereas older students have the discipline to pick information out of a poorly presented lecture, pre-teens generally don’t. The same researchers who conducted this study are working with local primary schools to give short robo-lectures on diabetes to children. The robot with “positive” emotions will presumably be more effective at engaging kids on chronic disease.

The research also has broader implications. Robots could aid in at-home care for the elderly or regularly assist teachers in school at all levels. Imagine a Watson in every class. The key to whether these robots become commonplace may be how much they creep us out, and these Dutch robots already seem pretty chill.

The only downside to some robots displaying positive emotions is what happens to those that just aren’t that happy, like the ‘negative’ robot in the study. Maybe it will find someone who wants a robot with attitude, but we fear its future may lie with another unfavorable technology: the trash compactor.


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