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Researchers program robot to run from kid bullies

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What happens when you leave a robot with packs of unsupervised kids? Researchers from the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, Osaka University, Ryukoku University and Tokai University in Japan have decided to find out -- and the answer isn't pretty. They unleashed a Robovie 2 at a shopping complex in Osaka as an experiment and caught groups of Satan's hellspawns mischievous little angels kicking, hitting and even verbally abusing the robot. The machine was programmed to politely ask humans to step aside if they're in the way, but kids refused to move and blocked it on purpose in many instances. That's why the researchers' next move was to develop an "abuse-evading algorithm."

They programmed the robot to be able to assess the "probability of abuse" when people approach it. When small humans below 4 feet 6 inches in height (and unaccompanied by an adult) walk towards it, the probability rises; kids approaching in packs means even higher probability. If it senses that children are going its way, it quickly changes directions... or approaches adults in hopes that they'd prevent the kids from hurting it. But then again, adults don't always know better. Remember how Hitchbot met its tragic end? Yep, done in by an ostensibly fully grown man. This is how the robot revolution starts, folks.

The Robovie 2 can help the elderly with chores or shopping and looks quite a bit like Wall-E. If we continue developing robotic technologies, there'd be more machines like it roaming around on their own in the future. Not to mention, a lot more companies might start using them as customer service reps and servers for hotels and other establishments. The team conducted the study to get a glimpse of how these "social robots" might be treated. Things could change when we're more used to seeing them in the wild, but if they don't, well, that algorithm sounds like it would be mighty useful.

PS: Wondering why the kids in the experiment kept abusing Robovie 2? The team published a second study entitled "Why Do Children Abuse Robots?" in which they discussed the connection between empathy (or lack thereof) and bullying. Ryukoku University has thankfully provided an English copy of the paper, which you can read right here (PDF).

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