The agreeableness of robotic vacuum cleaners

What would be the ideal ‘personality’ for a robotic vacuum cleaner? This is a perplexing  question, since at the time of writing robotic vacuum cleaners tend to have little or no  personality to speak of. Nevertheless, despite (or perhaps because of)  the challenges of future-gazing, it has recently been investigated by a research group from Delft University of Technology, Delft, and Philips Research, Eindhoven, in The Netherlands. For the first part of the study, a carefully selected team of participants was assembled for the evaluation process :

“In order to find out what robot vacuum cleaner personality people desire, a semi-structured interview was done with six participants, two women and four men. They were selected because they were likely to be early adopters of robot vacuum cleaners. The participants share some distinctive characteristics. They are all busy scheduled, and either have a background in technology or have affinity with technology. Besides this, they are Dutch.”

The busy Dutch team were asked to rate a notional future robot vacuum cleaner’s personality traits for desirability, and it was determined that the robot should be calm, friendly, like routines, but definitely not be talkative *. The next part of the study involved a group of human actors, who were asked to act like a robotic vacuum cleaner displaying the desired characteristics which had been determined in part one.

“…the actors were asked to act out situations—as if they were the robot vacuum cleaner—making use of motion and sound […] 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.“

Eight women and seven men (who fitted the target group as described above) watched a video of the robotic vac actors, and were asked to rate the displayed personality traits – the results generally confirming the findings from part one.

“We have investigated what kind of personality is desired for a robotic vacuum cleaner and found that people prefer a calm, polite, and cooperative robot vacuum cleaner that works efficiently, systematically and likes routines.”

These ratings may provide the groundwork for ‘personality’ embedders at robotic design institutions of the future. But, personality traits aside, there still remains a core rôle for a robotic vacuum cleaner – which the research team have not overlooked :

“…people expect a robot vacuum cleaner to fulfill a user need: having a clean floor.”

Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior is published in the International Journal of Social Robotics,Volume 3, Number 2, 187-195, April 2011.

Note: Thanks to Philips Research, Eindhoven for their assistance, who inform us that for contractual reasons the video of the actors’ vacuum cleaner performance is unavailable for public release.

*Coming soon to Improbable Research. If robots are to be talkative, what kind of accent should they have?