How to give a robot vacuum the appeal of real personality

Don't. Seriously. Just don't.

Of all the things you might want a robot vacuum for, personality is probably not high on the list.

Nevertheless, robot-intelligence researchers have glommed on to the humble robot vacuum as the next thing to be improved by the dramatic enhancement in the interactions between humans and robots that display some amount of personality, rather than just going about their jobs blandly and systematically.

To figure out what constitutes a personality and how to impose it on a vacuum, researchers, from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research in the Netherlands created a bland, systemic analysis.

The examined the Five-Factor personality component model (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which leaves out agreeable neuroticism because it is the trait that makes sitcoms work, not robots).

They examined levels of performance among different vacuum robots, methods of cleaning that include the pseudo-random and straight-line techniques, and tried to boil down what personality traits would enhance for humans the experience of having a thick dinner place bump around noisily cleaning a floor half as well in five times as long as a regular vacuum.

To really nail down the traits that would appeal to people, they did something far more interesting than any robot researchers have done before, or admitted to in public: they hired a bunch of actors to act out the part of the robot doing certain things – cleaning a spot on the carpet, for example, getting stuck under the couch, or scaring the dog.

"An introductory exercise was meant to familiarize the actors with the personality. Then, the actors were asked to act out situations—as if they were the robot vacuum cleaner—making use of motion and sound (expression through light was taken into consideration only after this exercise). In general, the actors either crawled about or walked around at a slow pace to imitate a vacuum cleaner. Often, a typical vacuuming sound was simulated by them."

Once they finished laughing at the actors (and, later, over biers, at the video), they called in a group of 15 volunteers to watch a boring square "vacuum" that was actually a remote-controlled fake vacuum, fail to clean up the room as usual, but do so while exhibiting the personality traits desired by the researchers and portrayed by the actors.

What they discovered – other than that actors have no sense of shame at all, and that most people can't tell a robot with a programmed personality from a remote-control white square box being driven by an emotionally manipulative Norwegian graduate student – was that the personality characteristics displayed by the robot did make a difference in how positively it was perceived by volunteers.

This is a revolutionary finding no one could have predicted from the celebrity of "robot" characters with fake personalities like C3PO, R2-D2, Wall-e, or the entire cast of Twilight.

Given its positive results, it's a little sad that "Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior" (PDF) was published in the "International Journal of Social Robotics" in April, but largely ignored until it was written up in Annals of Improbable Research, sponsors of the IgNobel Awards, the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists and other celebrations of legitimate but silly or pointless science.

When asked what it thought of the study and its findings, the robot vacuum beeeped plaintively and spewed smoke from a source that might have been indelicate had it been anything but a robot.

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