Much of the literature on human-robot cooperation is focused on either humanoid and pet-like robots or industrial robots. But within the physical spaces where we live our lives—working, playing, resting—we envision a robot that is neither life-like nor industrial but rather environmental; that is, a robot that is embedded in the walls, ceiling, and floor of such physical spaces.
Introducing a humanoid or industrial robot into living and working spaces is intrusive and disruptive. On the other hand, an “architectural” robot embedded in the physical envelope of the room can virtually disappear. Humanoid, pet-like, and industrial robots never go away but stand awkwardly like sentries “on a break” until commanded by their masters to guard and otherwise control the space.
We envision the architectural robot as capable of performing a wide-range of manipulation tasks we might expect from a humanoid or industrial robot (e.g. grasping, reaching, supporting, pointing, twisting, carrying, pushing, lifting). Additionally, and unlike humanoid, pet-like, and industrial robots, the architectural robot has the added benefit of reconfiguring the spatial envelope of the room to shape, essentially, different "rooms" matched to the unfolding of activity. Indeed, there is a deep literature on the impacts of the spatial environment on work performance and on quality of life which can help inform the configurations such a robotic room might assume to support human activity.
But while traditionally, a room is a frame to our lives, we envision an architectural robotic room as an agent in human-robot cooperation. This “space agent” has neither the behavior of a living referent (as does a humanoid or pet-like robot), nor does it appear to be an industrial machine; rather, this space agent has its own life, its own behavior, resonant with what we know of living things and machines. Inevitably, as robots become an increasingly familiar presence in our living spaces, we will be less dependent on them looking and behaving like familiar living things or like machines; the artificial life of space agents will be intelligible to us as we come to live together.
In more practical terms, we envision a space agent robot as a tendon-drive, continuum-robotic "ribbon.” It’s cross-section and its materiality can be varied, and the number of such ribbons of perhaps different cross-sections and materiality can be tuned to fit their purposes. Performing manipulation tasks and also defining the physical envelopes of rooms, space agents have potential, promising application to interiors of many kinds, including dwellings, hospitals, autonomous vehicles, spacecraft, and space habitation.
Our ambition is twofold: (a) to provide inhabitants many “rooms” configured by these robotic surfaces within a relatively compact habitable space; and (b) to envision such robotic surfaces not as components of a passive frame but as intelligent agents partnering with their inhabitants in human-machine activity—what we call “space agency.”
We are testing two hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: The use of SPACE AGENTS in a human-robot partnership will result in a greater number of creative ideas being produced for a given wicked, thinking-and-making challenge as compared to (a.) the use of only the screen-based software, and (b.) the use of no software support (i.e. pen and paper).
Hypothesis 2: The use of SPACE AGENTS in a human-robot partnership will result in more creative (i.e. both novel and purposeful) ideas being produced for a given wicked, thinking-and-making challenge as compared to (a.) the use of only the screen-based software offered by SPACE AGENTS, and (b.) the use of no software support (i.e. pen and paper).
To test these two hypotheses, we propose prototyping SPACE AGENTS by way of an iterative design and evaluation process, and then testing a human-SPACE AGENT partnership in lab experiments, where the space agent: (a) performs manipulation tasks with human partners in a creative task; and (b) defines spatial envelopes matched to support the unfolding activity.
Intellectually, the proposed research expects to contribute: a fully functioning prototype representing a design exemplar of a compressed-pattern, architectural robotic environment; a novel, robot-interaction modality based on compliant robots; an understanding of the diverse needs, challenges, and opportunities humans encounter when partnering with a robotic environment on relatively unstructured problems; and, foremost, a pattern language elaborating an ecology for human-robot cooperation. The investigators emphasize that SPACE AGENTS, while drawing on a rich body of prior accomplishments, should be recognized as an early effort with great promise for human-machine interaction, particularly given recent theorizing on post-humanism (e.g., Hayles) in which human-machine collaboration exceeds the capabilities of humans.