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IU professor gains human insight from android studies: Robots might someday train students

August 21, 2006

Androids are creatures of science fiction to most people, but to Karl MacDorman, robots made to resemble humans are more like colleagues.

MacDorman, 40, is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Informatics in Indianapolis who uses the mechanical subjects in his studies of human-computer interaction.

"The android is a very interesting device in studying human communication," he said. "If you use a robot, people expect it to act like a robot. But if you use a robot that looks like a human being, people have the expectation that it will act like a human being." MacDorman's androids are an integral part of the experiments he conducts with people to gauge emotion, for instance, or to study how gestures, voice and eye movement work together in interaction.

But the most intriguing study might be the ongoing exploration into what is known as the "uncanny valley." The theory first proposed in 1970 by robotics pioneer Masahiro Mori suggests the more realistic a robot appears, the more positively a human will react to it. When the resemblance is too strong, though, it actually causes a sense of repulsion or eeriness-the uncanny valley.

MacDorman seeks to chart new ground in researching that valley based on previous and ongoing research in which he has been involved.

In one study, MacDorman showed slides of 18 different androids that ran the gamut from mechanical to human-like, and had participants rate them on 28 emotions the images might have invoked. Fear and disgust ranked highest, when viewing the androids that most resembled humans, MacDorman said.

Besides scientific applications, the studies are used for practical purposes. Developers of video games want humanlike characters without dipping into the uncanny valley, MacDorman said.

The makers of Heavy Rain, a highly publicized video game in the demo stages, recently found that out. The character of Mary Smith has been cited as an example of the uncanny valley, mainly because her lips and eyes appear too real.

"The characters are more and more humanlike," MacDorman said, "but Pixar intentionally avoids animations that are too humanlike, like 'The Incredibles'."

MacDorman, a California native, came to IU in November and teaches three courses: the psychology of human-computer interaction, human-android interaction, and conducting research and studies for human interaction.

Darrell Bailey, executive associate dean and informatics professor, said MacDorman's arrival elevates IU's stature.

"Obviously, it brings national and international visibility to our program," he said. "But added to that, the sense and insight he has into people and machines has a wide array of applications, not only in the computing world but also [in] health and life sciences."

Indeed, androids can be used to train medical students, MacDorman said.

He received a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1988 and a doctorate in the same subject from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 1996.

He built his own robots while studying robotics and machine learning at Cambridge and became interested in using the robots to test his theories. After finishing his studies there, MacDorman traveled to Japan, a hot area for robotics.

While there, he met Hiroshi Ishiguro, a leader in android science at Osaka University with whom MacDorman collaborated for more than five years.

MacDorman was involved in the development of an android that appeared at the 2005 World Exposition in Japan. Further, he and Ishiguro organized a symposium that took place July 26 at the 28th annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society in Vancouver that brought together some of the world's experts in robotics and behavioral sciences.


Androids such as ReplieeQ2 are often so lifelike they can repulse people. MacDorman
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