June 16, 2024

In the age of autonomous robots, Luis Sentis is defining what comes next. For the last year, the University of Texas-Austin engineering professor has been leading a 20-member team made up of experts from the fields of engineering, communications, architecture, and more to examine how self-moving robots interact with people—and, more importantly, how people respond to them. The work, ultimately, could set the standards for how robots share our spaces.

“The questions that have been nagging me as an engineer over the years is that as engineers, we tend to fall in love with a kind of a machine,” he tells Quartz, “and less with the impact in society.”

Sentis’s hope is that their data will inform how self-controlling robots are designed and deployed with humans in mind. One early adopter of autonomous robotics is already eager for the findings: Hospitals, which use robo-machines to ferry medications, linens, food, and more in and out of medical wings. Sentis says the data can be used to develop safety, behavior, and communication for these robotic systems. And codifying standards for how robots interact with us productively can further bolster the nascent industry.

The research’s current experiment is being carried out on UT Austin’s campus. There, students interact with two of Boston Dynamics’s Spot four-legged robots—modeled after dogs—in an indoor facility. Subjects are told the robots will be in the room, but not what they’ll do. The researchers are interested in how they respond.

When the robots arrive and approach a participating student, experimenters will measure the participant’s stress. What happens to their cortisol levels? Do they begin sweating less, or more? The researchers also survey subjects before and after they meet the robot, asking questions about what made them feel comfortable, or what a good use of robots might look like in their lives. Eventually, the team plans to take the robots out into campus, where they’ll lead tours to students, providing even richer data for analysis.

So far the team has found that, overall, people see robots as a neutral good. And students are excited about what the tech makes possible, posing ideas like night-roving robots who can be safe escorts across campus. It’s the suggestions that surface in this latest leg of research, Sentis adds, that help shed light on where we see robots in our lives, especially in situations closely related to fear or anxiety. The team plans to dig deeper, ultimately mapping where robots intersect with human stress. Perhaps, then, we’ll be one step closer to a peaceful co-existence.

This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023, a series that spotlights the people deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good across the globe. Find the full list here.

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