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How Dr. Wendy Ju Designs Robots That Won’t Freak You Out

If we’re going to coexist with our silicon cousins, a deep understanding of how humans interact with machines needs to be explored.

This is Dr. Wendy Ju’s area of expertise. As Executive Director of Interaction Design Research at Stanford’s Center for Design Research, she studies how design affects our interaction with robots, which she has applied in the practical realm as a research collaborator with Ford, Toyota, and Bosch. PCMag was at Stanford recently and sat down with Dr. Ju to learn more about her work there, and her upcoming move to New York’s Cornell Tech.

Here are edited and condensed extracts from our conversation.

Your PhD dissertation at Stanford was on The Design of Implicit Interactions. Can you explain what you mean by that?
It’s a subject which has always fascinated me. There used to be a lot of discussion about what was called “invisible computing”—frictionless and seamless—and some people took that literally, trying to make the interaction itself disappear, but they still needed to make sure they were communicating with the user. It’s not just text and talking; there are many other ways in which we communicate implicitly which we need to bring into human-to-machine interaction. It’s very hard for engineers to know that design is an integral part of creating a product that people can use.

What was your first exposure to computing?
Well, both my parents worked in Silicon Valley so I grew up here. I can’t remember my first contact with a computer—we had an IBM PC, [but] I learned to program at a very early age. In some weird way, that’s made me more open-minded, because I’m not falling back on my introduction to computers. For example, I’ve been teaching students using a Raspberry Pi and they said: “Er, is there a web interface?”

Right! if someone’s cognition of computing starts with getting the 2007 iPhone, they’re going to have a very different concept from those of us who remember a command line pulsing waiting for a response. 
So true.

So how about robots, were you a C-3PO or R2-D2 fan?
The kind of robots I’m into are everyday objects that suddenly come to life. Like a well-made chair that’s actually a robot, or a trash can, or the automated cars that we’ve been working on.

Ah. Less humanoids and more automata. Have you always attributed hidden behaviors to household objects?
When I was very small I’d sometimes stub my toe on the door and my parents would go up to the door and whisper “How could you?” Then they’d turn to me and say: “Hit the door back!” So ridiculous [Laughs]. Even now I see the anthropomorphic robots and think, hmm. I really prefer a well-made chair which we can then add motion to, because its design makes it look as if it’s about to move anyway, so let’s help it. I’m a big nerd, I have an engineering degree, and I’ve worked around robots my whole life. But I’m coming to the field from a deep interest in industrial design and bringing a dynamic aspect to that.

Which brings us to your experiments with moving furniture and objects.
We did a Wizard of Oz field experiment using a remotely operated human-in-the-loop trash barrel to workshop how the interaction would go in the real world. One of the things about interaction is it takes two. As a designer you can’t design the interaction itself—that dynamism requires the human aspect.

We were shocked to find out that people expected the trash barrel to say “thank you” when they put trash in it—as it’s a service robot, not the other way round. We also saw a little boy baiting the trash barrel with a piece of garbage, to get it to follow him and move somewhere. I realized he had a model in his head where he thought the trash barrel wanted to “eat” the garbage, as if he was feeding an animal. One of my team said: “Oh no, we thought we were making a service robot, but they think it’s a beggar!”

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