Robots in everyday life: the playmate

Robots are increasingly conquering everyday human life. Some of them are “invisible” and are barely perceived as robots – such as voice assistants in smart speakers. Others, on the other hand, are more visible and audible like a vacuum cleaner robot that cleans the apartment at set times. But these robots are just a start. Because – it seems – they develop into a “new species” with increasing intelligence and increasing abilities and are themselves increasingly becoming a social actor.

The series “Robots in Everyday Life” presents five possible stages in the evolution of robots in society. Using examples, highlights on current research and expert interviews, the series of articles follows your development from playmates, slaves and colleagues to friends or even loved ones. The playmate makes the start.

What can you do with this strange … thing? What is that? When stretched out, it has the shape of an elongated rectangle, wrapped in fur, the pattern of which is reminiscent of a leopard. A throw pillow? A small decorative blanket for the sofa? No, the fluffy something is moving. Like a caterpillar, it can curl up and stretch again, apparently reacting to touch, but in an inscrutable, always surprising way.

The thing also makes noises. They come from the servomotors that are hidden under the skin and with which it can change the angles of its body segments to one another. But in connection with the movements that do not follow any recognizable pattern, they seem like the vocalizations of an exotic fantasy being that is about being included in the ensemble of Muppets Show applies.

The Flatcat in action.

This thing is a robot, called Flatcat, and does – nothing: it just wants to play. He is incapable of anything else. Its developers at the Berlin-based company Jetpack Cognition Lab, founded in 2019, have not equipped it with displays or other data input options, or with visual or auditory sensors. Flatcat only perceives forces that act on it, reacts to them and gradually develops a behavior from these experiences. “Cuddle with him, romp around with him or just watch him do strange things”, so the recommendation on the Flatcat homepage. “We are sure, as well as us, Flatcat will amaze you and caress your soul.”

Because the attraction of the flat robot cat is not what it can do, but what it will possibly learn. While toy robots are otherwise often equipped with a limited number of pre-programmed behaviors, the stimulus of which will sooner or later be exhausted, Flatcat is completely open to what kind of activity patterns develop over time. Anyone who brings this techno pet into their home or laboratory has the opportunity to follow the development of their thinking skills and thus an artificial personality up close and in real time – just like a biological pet.

When designing the exterior of the robot, however, the developers deliberately did not follow any biological model. For them it is about “functional integrity”, says Jetpack co-founder Matthias Kubisch: “We do not want to present robots to people whose appearance arouses expectations that cannot be met.”

The inner workings, on the other hand, are based on research that tries to understand the emergence of the mind as a self-organizing system in the interplay of brain, body and environment. It is therefore no coincidence that Flatcat is reminiscent of some of the strange creatures with whom Ralf Der and Georg Martius tried this approach. While their playful machines but exist mainly as simulations, Flatcat should dare to step into the real world and develop intelligence in the playful exploration of its physical possibilities and its environment.

The Playful Machines only exist virtually.

But can such a “useless part” really be called a robot? The vision of Karel Čapek, who appeared in his 1920 Stage play RUR first used the term looked different. When asked why they make robots, the technical director of the eponymous company, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, answers straight away: “To work, Miss. A robot replaces two and a half workers. The human machine, Miss Glory, was immensely imperfect . It finally had to be eliminated. ”

41 years later, the first real industrial robot, “Unimate”, went into service, welded car body parts and thus made Čapek’s idea a reality. There are now more than 2.7 million of these tireless assembly workers in action around the world. But they shouldn’t play, they should work.

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