Friday, January 28, 2005

Sony QRIO: He, She, or It?

I had the good fortune today of seeing Sony's humaniod robot and corporate ambassador, QRIO. QRIO is an impressive thing, even more impressive than Honda's ASIMO, in my opinion. It's smaller, but more independent, autonomous. Technically, it's a modern marvel. It can stand up after being pushed over. When it falls, it even braces itself with its arms to protect its head. The bipedal balance is great; face and voice recognition is impressive; stereo vision and listening is quite amazing; the movement is very expressive... but...

One audience member at the demo raised the interesting question of gender. Does QRIO have a gender? One of the Sony people giving the demo had been alternately referring to QRIO as "he" and "it." Another researcher used the feminine pronoun "her." In answer to the question, they sort of joked about it, and their answer boiled down to "it doesn't really matter."

I thought this was too bad. QRIO is being developed with human-robot communication in mind. QRIO is supposed to connect with people on an emotional, affective level. The simple choice of a gender would be a huge step towards defining a character for QRIO to which people would relate much more readily. Choosing an age would help too. For instance, QRIO reminds me of a little boy; if they made that choice consciously and made it concrete, QRIO would be far more interesting to interact with.

In my own work with robots, particularly with bringing NASA robotic exploration missions to the public, I tend to assign a gender to each in my head. NASA robots aren't even humanoid, but somehow their autonomy cries out to be characterized. Zoë, a CMU robot that I work with on a regular basis, has always been female in my mind, and in public education materials, I refer to Zoë as "her." The roboticists that I work with were surprised the first time they heard me do this. Perhaps, growing up around boats, which are traditionally feminine, put that in my mind, or perhaps, my artistic and dramatic background causes me to have a different outlook than your average engineer.

In any case, I urge anyone working on robots to consider this issue, especially in relation to humanoid or entertainment robots.


Post a Comment

<< Home