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Humanoid robot helps Canterbury students answer some big questions

University of Canterbury psychology researchers are working with a robot known as Baxter to understand human-robot interaction such as trust, cooperation, social behaviour, aggression and moral decision-making.

Baxter is the first publically available industrial robot which is safe to work collaboratively with people.

Furthermore, unlike previous robots which are vehicular in shape and function-like drones, Baxter is humanoid in shape and functions with two arms, a head and animated eyes.

A number of postgraduate psychology students are researching with the Baxter robot this year, and Helton will be employing Baxter to study how people coordinate and operate safely with robots in future workplaces. 

The goal of such research is to better understand how the increased use of robots in the future will impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviour toward both technology and each other.

According to Helton the team has already examined remote navigation and control of uninhabited vehicles. He says Baxter is different from other industrial robots because it can learn. 

The team has found Baxter can be used for simple industrial jobs such as loading, unloading, sorting, and handling of materials and can already express its confusion when something isn't right. 

Dr Kumar Yogeeswaran will also be using the Baxter robot for his research in the field of socio-robotics. 

Yogeeswaran's prior research on the topic has examined how factors such as a robot's physical appearance, more or less human-like, or its physical and mental capabilities impact how people think, feel, and behave towards robots.

The University of Canterbury’s psychology department is uniquely positioned to do research in human-robot interaction, says professor Deak Helton.

“Our psychology department is definitely going to be a leader in understanding how people work with technology and we are entering ground-breaking territory. This is an amazing robot and University of Canterbury psychology is doing innovative science," says Helton.

He says the psychology department at the University of Canterbury anticipates robots will be very common in the future, and Baxter is the first serious step in the robot revolution where useful robots will work interactively with people.

“Robots, and in particular, humanoid-like robots are going to increasingly be found in our environments, especially workplaces.

"This raises a lot of issues of how people will respond. Will people view them with trust or distrust? How do we use robots in workplaces most appropriately?" says Helton.

“Will people’s attitudes towards other people change as robots become more human-like; will people become excessively attached and addicted to their robots and thus, become disconnected from other people? There are lots of questions," he says.

“The future will have robots and they will change society. A forward looking psychology department will have robots and our department is very forward looking. We do not train psychologists for yesterday, but for tomorrow," he says.