Baxter the robot was once working on a factory line — now, he is learning to dance.
Baxter’s dance lessons are part of a research project to find out how to make robots more friendly, headed by the University of Canberra’s Dr Damith Herath.
“In the next 30 years we’ll be seeing more human-friendly robots coming into our spaces, so we need to understand what kind of interfaces work,” Dr Herath said.
“Does a humanoid work, or something a bit more cute and cuddly?”
It was not Baxter’s first step into the human world; he was taught how to play, and cheat, at tic-tac-toe and even gave a concert at the Sydney Opera House.
But it was the robot’s most intimate experience, and it was a test for choreographer and dancer Vicki Van Hout.
“You know, I want to be graceful, because I’m a dancer … so to me it’s kind of like when you see a cat that falls over and it’s peeved with itself, that’s what it’s like for me,” she said.
“Because [humans] have similar anatomies, the conversation is very quick.
But I find more things each time I go back to Baxter. It’s quite interesting seeing how I move with Baxter.”
Watching the Wiradjuri woman teach an ancient dance to new technology looked clunky and, sometimes, tense.
But those interactions were exactly what Dr Herath was looking out for.
“There are all these nuanced measures we need to understand before we can actually bring these robots into a human space, and part of that process is to try with performers, so we can understand how they feel about it,” he said.
Dr Herath said like mobile technology, what was once clunky and difficult to use is now natural even to a child.
Social robotics are still early in their evolution, but observing how people react to them is vital to developing more intuitive machines.
Baxter is not quite ready for the human world, but Dr Herath said people could expect to see him around more and more.
“We’re trying to bring it to different public spaces to really bring robotics to the public and have that discussion happening.
So if you see Baxter somewhere weird and just want to wander around him, you’re most welcome to do so.”