Video: A robot is bullied by children, so scientists teach it how to react

Robovie is just trying to live its life.
Robovie is just trying to live its life.
Image: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao
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What drives someone to attack a robot? Is it a fear of the potential robot uprising? Is it sport? Perhaps it’s a general lack of brotherly love? Whatever the reason, scientists in Japan are teaching robots how to avoid human bullying.

The researchers dropped a remotely-controlled Robovie 2 robot on a mall in Osaka and studied how passers-by interacted with it, IEEE Spectrum reported. They found that for the most part, people got out of the way of the robot when it asked them to do so.

But when a gang of children happened upon the bot, they tended to be little monsters. They hit, kicked, and verbally abused the (admittedly quite creepy-looking) Robovie—with one child apparently calling the robot an “idiot” eight times.

So the team devised a system not unlike that of any child who has experienced bullying from peers: The robot tries to predict how gangs of kids are going to act, and determines whether it needs to move away from them if they get too close. (The scientists defined children as any human shorter than 1.4 meters—4 feet 6 inches—which could potentially cause some awkward misidentification.)

The research suggested that children were less likely to behave aggressively to the robots when adults were present, or when they were on their own (another fact that won’t surprise those who have experienced childhood bullying or any kind of mob behavior). The kids in the mall were later interviewed by the research team, and 74% of them said they perceived the robot as “human-like.”

While the research project will surely help future robots learn to maneuver better in crowds, another takeaway is that Japan appears to have a bit of a bullying problem.