What are living objects and how should we interact with them

What are living objects and how should we interact with them

Michal Leschinsky

12 בספטמבר 2021, 21:00:00

We are surrounded by living objects, and every day their impact on our lives increases.

A living object is on the spectrum between a smartphone, a speaker with AI, a robot and even a robotic vacuum cleaner. A live object is the term I use to describe an object that responds to us in a significant manner. The option for a debate about what is a “significant manner” makes the definition of a living object subjective. Similarly, “robot” has quite a few definitions, but none earned a consensus, making the definition of a robot subjective as well, it is a cultural definition (is a smartphone a robot? What about a vending machine, an automated elevator, an autonomous car? These objects have not been a part of human life for long enough for us to have clear distinctions and definitions).
Industrial robots first emerged in the 1950 and 1960, and were usually large, fenced machines people had to be cautious around. Over the years smaller, safer robots came to the front of the stage, leading the fourth industrial revolution, and those are designed to be collaborative robots (cobots). Collaborative robots are meant to operate in close proximity to people and in collaboration with them. Cobots are developed with the understanding that currently robots cannot complete a full elaborate task on their own, and the best and most efficient way to use them is to give the robots tasks they can do better than people, and give people tasks they can do better than robots- each with its advantages, collaborating and completing one another.

Joseph F. Engelberger, known as the father of robotics. image by Joyce Dopkeen, The New York Times.
As cobots and living objects come more and more into our lives we notice an interesting effect- our brain actually perceives these objects as living objects! Not in a rational way, but in an emotional way.
We’re very physical creatures and robots move around in our physical space in a way that feels autonomous to us. The fact is that we love to humanize anything from cats to pet rocks… robots with their physical movement really tap into some deep biological tendency to perceive life in these artifacts.
(Kate Darling, The Radical AI Podcast, 2020)
This tendency to anthropomorphize and develop feelings is an evolutionary given, and we as designers working on such objects and products cannot ignore the responsibility that puts on our shoulders.
Interaction designers must thoughtfully characterize the product they are working on, make sure they are making decisions that will benefit the users. Emotional attachment is not always what we would want to create. For example, emotional attachment to an industrial robot might be inappropriate. I remember a story from the mid two thousands about a marines unit which used a designated robot to clear landmines before they passed a terrain. One time this unit was ambushed and the robot was caught in the crossfire. Against protocol soldiers risked their lives to save the robot (which they named), stating it is part of the unit, and that they leave no man behind. This shows that sometimes a design should aim to not arouse empathetic feelings. When designers do a bad job with design and interaction design it is evident in the finished product. it harms the users and may even endanger lives. That is the reason I chose to dive into the field of interaction design and why I believe designers should be more involved in such development processes.
As robots become more collaborative they exit the factory floor and become a part of our everyday lives. We are now seeing some delivery vehicles in operation and several companies are working on domestic and service robots which will undoubtedly be in our lives soon. Those robots are inherently more people focused, and should be user friendly. In addition to that, industrial robots and cobots are usually used by trained professionals, whereas domestic and service robots come in contact with the general public. That means that people with no robotic training and no specific technological education should be able to easily communicate with these robots.
During my work at Unlimited Robotics we explored the optional communication channels between people and robots, and set a goal for that communication to be as intuitive as possible and with a short learning curve. In the world of interaction design the ways the robot communicates with the user are called “modalities”.