Cats Reveal Key Ingredients for Building Trust Between Humans and Robots

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Beyond AI and Engineering: The Importance of Environment in Robot-Cat Interactions

Can robots become companions for our furry friends? New research suggests it’s not just about the technology itself, but also the world it operates in and the role humans play.

Cat Royale: A Multispecies Collaboration

Cat Royale, a unique project spearheaded by computer scientists from the University of Nottingham and artists from Blast Theory, explored the possibilities of robot-cat interaction. This artist-led installation, launched in 2023 at the World Science Festival in Brisbane, Australia, featured a custom-built enclosure where three cats interacted with a robotic arm for six hours a day over twelve days. The project’s success recently culminated in a Webby Award win for its creative execution.

More Than Just the Tech: Designing the “World” Matters

The research, presented in the paper “Designing Multispecies Worlds for Robots, Cats, and Humans” at the CHI’24 conference (winning best paper!), goes beyond the robot’s design and functionality. It emphasizes the crucial role of the environment in which the robot operates. While crafting sophisticated AI and robot interactions is important, the world where these interactions occur is equally, if not more, significant.

Cat Games and Personalized Experiences

Cat Royale featured a robotic arm designed to engage the cats with various activities. From dragging a “mouse” toy to raising a feathery “bird” and even offering treats, the robot aimed to enrich the cats’ lives. The research team further implemented an AI system that learned the cats’ preferences, personalizing their experiences.

Trusting Robots with Our Loved Ones

Professor Steve Benford, lead researcher from the University of Nottingham, delves deeper into the project’s underlying theme: “On the surface, Cat Royale explores enriching cats’ lives through robotic play. But beneath the playful facade lies a deeper question: Can we trust robots to care for our loved ones, and potentially ourselves?”

Designing for Cats, Engineering for Interaction

Working with Blast Theory, the research team gained valuable insights. Designing the robot wasn’t just about picking up toys; it had to manipulate them in ways that excited the cats while learning their individual preferences. Furthermore, the entire enclosure played a critical role. The space provided safe zones for observation and playful stalking, strategically decorated to optimize robot-cat encounters.

This research suggests that robot design extends beyond engineering and AI. It incorporates interior design principles to create suitable environments for human-robot-animal interaction. If robots are to become caregivers within our homes, adapting our living spaces might be necessary.

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 Left: The control room (front to back): robot operator, artists, vision mixer. Centre: Inside the Cat Royale enclosure, in the centre of the room is Clover playing with the String deployed by the Robot. In the upper left corner Pumpkin is resting on one of the high perches. Behind the robot are the four toy racks used to store end-effectors. Two of the high dens are visible, allowing the cats to retreat. On the left, a scratching post, as well as the ball run tube system is visible. Within the enclosure a multitude of plants are distributed. Right top: The robot control system. The activity library is on the left. Each blue box (52 visible) represents one of the many possible robot actions. Right bottom: The iPad based interface for documenting the cat stress score (Kessler and Turner, 1997), this is based on a seven point scale (1: Fully Relaxed to 7: Terrified).

Collaboration for Multispecies Success

The project’s success stemmed from collaborative workshops held at the University of Nottingham’s Cobotmaker Space. Stakeholders from various backgrounds came together to brainstorm the robot’s design and prioritize cat welfare.

Eike Schneiders, a researcher involved in the project, emphasizes the multifaceted approach: “Cat Royale proved that creating a multispecies system involving cats, robots, and humans requires more than just robot design. We prioritized animal well-being while ensuring the interactive installation captivated global audiences. This involved meticulous consideration of the enclosure design, the robot and its systems, the role of humans involved, and of course, the selection of the cats themselves.”

The Future of Robot-Cat Interaction

Cat Royale paves the way for future research in human-robot-animal interaction. By acknowledging the importance of both technology and environment, researchers can design robots that not only function effectively but also foster positive interactions with our beloved companions.

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