What do you expect robots to do for you? Robots are already influencing our lives by assisting us in executing various tasks with such advanced technologies as artificial intelligence and motion generation and control. Self-driving cars are under development, and robotic vacuums help many people keep their homes clean. Amazon now has more than 100,000 robots working in its warehouses around the world. Robots can be also used in many situations where humans need help, including hazardous environments and manufacturing processes.
However, Professor Michio Okada of Toyohashi University of Technology develops robotic technology based on a totally different concept. Okada, who specializes in social robotics, communication, and cognitive science, is researching the relationship between humans and robots by using unique and vulnerable-looking robots called “weak robots.” The Sociable Trash Box is one of the 20 or so of these weak robots that Okada has developed. Given the popularity of robots that vacuum your house for you, you might be surprised to hear that this trashcan robot doesn’t do any cleaning and can’t even pick up trash because it doesn’t have any arms. When you see it wiggling around the room searching for trash, you instinctively get the impression that it’s politely encouraging you to help pick up trash. In other words, the adorable Social Trash Box uses its weakness as a tool to encourage the people around it to pick up trash.
iBones is another of Okada’s inventions. This robot’s task is to hand out packets of tissues to passersby. Distributing tissue packets is a popular marketing method in Japan, but people sometimes ignore or walk past those handing them out. It is necessary to attract people’s attention when handing out the tissues. However, iBones isn’t good at doing that because it’s too wobbly and unassertive. Nevertheless, its weakness evokes sympathy from passersby and eventually makes them feel like they should help it out by taking the tissue. When the robot bends forward as if bowing to express appreciation, the person who has taken the tissue gains a sense of fulfillment.
Many robots are developed with the aim of helping people, and engineers compete with each other to make their robots as functional as possible. From this perspective, Okada’s robots that are designed to require human help may sound absurd. However, he told Nikkei (12/2/2018) that he believes that robots can elicit sympathy and kindness by showing their “incompleteness” and “weakness” and that the presence of “weak robots” could have a positive impact on society by awakening our innate sympathy for others.