Designing Social Robots

January 31, 2018 - 3 minute read -
robotics ai psychology

Last week, I briefly introduced the idea of human-robot interaction and its motivations. I mentioned a few different examples — i.e. Sophia, the iDog, Sonny — of what robot designers termed socially interactive robots. This week, let’s discuss more about the challenges in designing social robots.


By definition, social robots are those that are able to interact and communicate with human beings. Socially interactive robots, by extension, are robots that are able to interact with human beings in a more natural and meaningful way. They are embodied within our sociocultural context and possess histories. In other words, they perceive and interpret the world in terms of their own experience. At the very least, socially interactive robots should be able to empathize with human beings.

However, there are many surfacing issues in designing robots capable of this. As we saw last week, Sophia is able to mechanically executed certain facial expressions to “show” emotion. She is able to push the corners of her mouth toward the center of her face to simulate a smile, expressing happiness. Though, if we were to have Sophia to this in front of a toddler, would he smile back or would he cry instead?

Sophia is also capable of having a high-level conversation but as we saw in last week’s video, the conversation was still awkward and rough. At times, Sophia would talk back with random responses. Besides, even if Sophia could have a smooth flowing conversation with us, would she understand, or even feel, the emotions behind each word?

Functional or Biological?

There are two primary approaches in designing social robots — functionally designed or biologically designed. Functionally designed robots are restricted to specific operational objectives. Biologically designed robots, on the other hand, aim to imitate living creatures — more specifically, human beings.


Functionally designed robots are typically designed with limited operations. They are engineered to complete a very specific set of tasks. Functional robots do not usually express any sort of social intelligence, except maybe having a “face” to make them seem friendlier to human.

Sawyer was designed as a functional robot. It is a cobot (from collaborative robot) intended to interact with humans in a shared workspace. Rethink Robotics built Sawyer as a high performance collaborative robot for the industrial automation industry. It is flexible enough maneuver tight spaces and is extremely precise (+/- 0.1 mm). Sawyer can handle metal fabrication, molding operations, packaging, inspection, and other related tasks. Sawyer has a face — a pair of eyes and eyebrows—to make it appear relatable like a coworker sitting in the cubicle across fro you. Albeit, it is certainly not capable of having any social interactions.


Pepper, on the other hand, was biologically inspired. It is a humanoid. Unlike Sawyer, robots like Pepper were designed with social intelligence. In other words, they were designed specifically to serve and interact with humans — to speak and to understand us.

According to its maker, Softbank Robotics, Pepper is “kind, endearing, and surprising”. Pepper has the ability to recognize emotion and adapt its behavior accordingly. CNNtech’s Samuel Burke went on a date with Pepper. At one point, Burke accidentally called Pepper Alexa and clearly expressed a sense of embarrassment. Pepper was able to recognize that and offered Burke a hug. Most people would say that Burke had a “meaningful” interaction with Pepper.

Which one would I choose?

Probably, both.

I could imagine having several functional robots like Sawyer around my house. It would be pretty neat to have robots that can clean the dishes or do the laundry for me. Technically, our homes already have these kinds of robots. The only difference is that our machines did not come with a face like Sawyer’s.

As a personal companion, I would certainly love having a Pepper around. It could serve as the family’s personal assistant. Even more relevant to recent days, Pepper can be our very own personal CPA. Our family can share our frustrations about tax season, ask questions, set reminders, submit documents, and much more.

The convenience that Pepper offers is quite appealing.