A recent study conducted by Washington State University suggests that exposure to soft robots can significantly decrease human fears and concerns about working with these robots, as well as the fear of being replaced by them. The study found that watching videos of soft robots performing tasks alongside humans, such as picking and placing objects, lowered the participants’ safety concerns and feelings of job insecurity. Surprisingly, this effect was observed even when the soft robot was shown working in close proximity to the human. This finding highlights the potential psychological advantage of soft robots over their rigid counterparts, which are typically made of metal or other hard materials.
Lead author of the study, Tahira Probst, a psychology professor at WSU, explained that previous research indicated that people generally have more negative reactions when they are in close proximity to rigid robots. However, this study found that this was not the case with soft robots. Proximity to soft robots could, therefore, be both physically safer and more psychologically accepted. Probst emphasized that further research is needed to replicate these findings, but if they hold up, it could mean that humans can work more closely with soft robots.
The study, published in the journal IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, also found that faster interactions with soft robots tended to elicit more negative responses from participants. However, when the participants had previous experience with robots, the faster speed did not bother them. In fact, they preferred the faster interactions. This suggests that familiarity with soft robots can increase overall comfort and acceptance.
Probst highlighted the significance of these findings, stating that approximately half of all occupations are likely to involve some level of automation in the next few decades, particularly in fields such as production, transportation, extraction, and agriculture. Soft robots, which are made with flexible materials like fabric and rubber, present a potential solution to several limitations of rigid robots, such as high costs and safety concerns.
Ming Luo, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, explained that soft robots are naturally safe, eliminating the need for costly hardware and sensors to ensure safety, as required for rigid robots. For example, a rigid robot used for apple picking can cost around $30,000, whereas the research and development cost for a soft robot, including all components and manufacturing, is under $5,000. Additionally, Luo mentioned that production costs can be substantially reduced if scaled up.
Luo’s team is currently working on developing soft robots for various applications, including fruit picking, pruning, and pollinating. These soft robots also have the potential to assist the elderly or disabled individuals in home or healthcare settings. However, more development is required before this becomes a reality. To better understand human-robot interactions, Luo’s engineering lab has partnered with Probst’s psychology team, incorporating human reactions into the design process.
To further validate the findings of this study, the researchers plan to bring participants into the lab to interact directly with soft robots. In addition to self-reported surveys, the researchers will also measure participants’ physical stress reactions, such as heart rate and galvanic skin responses, which indicate changes in the skin’s electrical resistance due to emotional stress. This comprehensive approach aims to enhance our knowledge of human-robot interactions and guide the design and development of soft robots.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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