Author: Thomas, Jack
There is a growing wave of new autonomous robots poised for use in human environments, from the self-driving car to the delivery drone. By leaving the confinement of factories and warehouses for city streets and office buildings, the field of robotics is on a collision course with the wider public, and must prepare to contend with society as a whole’s reaction to integrating human and robot spaces. In the research community, this is leading to a convergence of the fields of Autonomy and Human-Robot Interaction, producing new and emergent issues. This thesis proposes that one such issue is the problem of a robot’s “Social Agency”, whereby navigating among humans necessarily makes robotic agents part of society in the eyes of humans, and so robots must play a social role in order to achieve the acceptance they need to be effective. After grounding this idea within existing theory, we will examine the Social Agency proposition over three parts, representing three research projects. In part one, we investigate the potential of an “incidental interface” for human-robot interaction that adapts an existing autonomous, multi-robot system to use audio for inter-robot communication, allowing human co-workers to supervise their work through casual overhearing. Part two re-implements another autonomous system for human-robot and robot-robot doorway navigation, where a user study finds a link between social acceptance of the robot, accepting the robot’s right of way, and performance. Insights gained from that study are leveraged in part three with a redesigned doorway system that makes proactive, self-confident determinations about right of way, leading to the discovery of a polarizing reaction among participants dubbed “Agency Alienation”. We close with an examination of what this development arc demonstrates about the potential and pitfalls of developing a robot’s Social Agency, and what this may mean for the future of robotics in public spaces.
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Thesis advisor: Vaughan, Richard
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