The robot will need to learn from body language cues if it is a good time to interrupt and if its interruption was welcome. With the help of the 15 employees – who will dedicate time in their day for training – the robot will over time refine its behaviours and movements.
“We have to provide something that can learn and adjust and start recognising people and learn the very basic things about a workspace: how people move, the speed of movement, when it’s a good time to slow down, what’s the acceptable body language, how close do you go, where do you stop,” says Velonaki.
There is an employee wellbeing function being built into the bot as well. It could encourage employees to take a break when tensions run high.
“It's good to have some sort of a break. It’s good to leave a situation when it becomes too hectic and have some sort of pressure valve,” says Velonaki.
“We want a system that is not a threat – it doesn't monitor your productivity but maybe your well being as a group,” she adds.
A key challenge, given the length of the study, will be the robots need to maintain the interest and acceptance of its flesh and blood colleagues.
“For people to engage with it, it will need to learn and evolve and change. Otherwise it will get boring. And why would people at work spend time and work to teach a robot if they see that there's no progress or they don’t see new patterns and it’s all a bit of a novelty,” says Velonaki.
Built in will be an element of surprise.
“You want an element of surprise. You don’t want this kind of totally subservient, happy robot. The question is when do you introduce the behavioural element of surprise? You don't want it to be distracting you don't want it to be something that looks like a fault or isn’t appropriate,” she adds.
Whether the study succeeds or fails (“even if the robot doesn’t coexist successfully we’re still learning” says Velonaki) its findings will be invaluable in designing future bots.
“If they're going to be embedded in different social structures and institutions they have to be able to train and coexist and coexist in an interesting way,” Velonaki adds.
The robot’s design is, Velonaki puts it, “very different to anything that I've ever designed before” (and there have been some bizarre bots in the past). While its form and features are still under wraps, it is sure to be innovative, which is kind of the point, adds Thapliya.
“If you are really going to create something, you should create something that is really cutting edge. Get to the boundaries and see what it’s like,” he says.
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