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Largest study of human-robot interactions in the real world prepares to unfold

If you encountered a robot, would you walk right up to it or steer clear of it? It's a question that researchers at the University of Texas in Austin are about to find out—as how we interact with robots gets scrutinized on a scale never seen before.
So much of our life is automated these days: from doors that slide open automatically to maps on our smartphones guiding us where we need to go. There is another type of automation, though – involving full-fledged robots – that may be soon also become part of our everyday lives.
The University of Texas in Austin, a sprawling campus of 50,000 students, is about to become a living, breathing experiment for how humans interact with things that are decidedly not living, nor breathing.
Before any robots end up in public, they start out in labs on campus and undergo extensive testing.
Posted at 11:39 AM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-24 17:43:15-05

AUSTIN, Texas — It's not every day you come across a robot, but on one campus, that's about to get turned on its head.

"A lot of times, we just throw technologies out there and we don't pay attention to how humans are going to be around them,” said Keri Stephens, co-director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin, a sprawling campus of more than 50,000 students.

It's also a place that's about to become a living and breathing experiment for things that are decidedly not living or breathing.

"Humans have all these different reactions when they see technologies like this, and so, we're going to be studying all of those interactions," Stephens said.

A five-year study is about to get underway on the UT campus that will look at how humans react to robots that are out and about in the real world. The fleet of robots will be acting as delivery vehicles for COVID-related supplies around campus.

"They can order them and the robot will then go without a person. But we'll be watching at a distance," Stephens said. "So, this study we're going to look at, ‘Do they trip over them? Do they stop and talk to them? Do they want to play with them? Do they kick them?’"

Those are all questions that have never been asked on this scale. The study will be the largest of its kind ever conducted involving human-robot interactions.

"The novelty really comes around looking at groups of people interacting with robots and the robots are out there in the public space," Stephens said.

Before the robots end up in public, though, they start out in labs on campus.

"We've been testing out a couple of walking strategies," said UT student Carlos Gonzalez, who was running tests on a robot in one of the labs. "It's like the challenge of getting something from simulation to the real world is the most exciting part."

That work is overseen by Luis Sentis, an associate professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.

"There's a collection of techniques we're using to determine to what extent a community, like our campus, accepts the use of robotics in the wild,” Sentis said. "The reason why this became an important project is because we see more and more companies deploying robots in the wild, and it's going to happen more and more."

The federal government-funded National Science Foundation is putting up more than $3 million to fund this study. It is part of an effort to get answers to how robots could be a part of life on the streets before they fully hit the streets.

"We see a lot of applications of delivery robots well beyond just kind of the day-to-day deliveries, but possibly even into disasters and emergencies as well," Stephens said.

It is a potential helping hand that could become even more common in the coming years.