Indiana/Purdue Prof Dedicated to Making Helper Droids

A professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is working on creating life-like androids to study human behavior and social interaction, with an eye toward using them as social workers and companions for the elderly.

Karl MacDorman is dedicated to making an android so real it passes the "uncanny valley," he said, the point at which androids no longer repel people in close proximity.

MacDorman said Asians, particularly the Japanese, seem more open to the use of android applications, such as receptionists and museum guides, patient care, and as companions for the elderly, than almost any other group of people. Japanese nursing homes are already using realistic-looking robotic pets as companions for residents. The pets respond to the sound of a person's voice.

MacDorman has held several positions at Osaka University when android science was just starting to move forward. IUPUI is the only university in the United States to offer instruction on android science.

MacDorman told the Indianapolis Star he envisions androids being able to accomplish much more than just robot-like menial labor. Instead he is working to make them more humanly sensitive, by being able to recognize a joke, for example. "I really don't see androids doing things like mowing the lawn, washing dishes," he told the Star, "or fighting fires and defusing bombs," he said. "When Americans think about robots, they typically think about tasks they can do."

MacDorman is an associate professor of human-computer interaction in IU's School of Informatics, and also an adjunct professor with Purdue University's School of Engineering and Technology.

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About the Author

Paul McCloskey is contributing editor of Syllabus.

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