Virgin seat-bouncing game

Is there a robot in the house?

I’ve frequently rambled on about the paradox of robotics: The more humanlike we try to make them, the less humanlike they seem. The converse is true: When a robot is particularly unhumanoid, we seem to find it all the more “alive”. I think it’s because “realism”, ultimately, takes place inside our brains, when we decide a robot is charming enough that we want to feel it’s alive.

Exhibit A is the TUG hospital robot made by the Aethon corporation. The TUG ferries documents, linens, x-rays, and other materials around the hospital. It speaks several languages to warn people that it’s coming and going, but otherwise it’s not very humanoid. (Actually, judging by the picture above, it looks like a filing cabinet on wheels.) Nonetheless, as CNN reports, the staff of the hospital frequently find themselves staring at the object and wondering about its psychology and “motivations”:

On a recent run in the University of Pittsburgh’s Magee Women’s Hospital, a TUG en route from the pharmacy to another floor went silent and idle for several minutes while waiting for an elevator.

The robot’s behavior baffled Aethon President Aldo Zini, but after a call to headquarters, he figured it out. The TUG was being too cautious. It won’t get on an elevator if a button is pushed — an indication someone else is on the elevator — or if the elevator is heavy, perhaps full with carts or beds.

There were other oddities. Later in its run, the TUG crawled inches away from a wall, apparently trying to avoid two scraps of paper on the floor.

(Thanks to Slashdot for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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