What is a social robot?

The terminology to describe so called social robots is not consistent across literature but depends on the particular research emphasis. Robots are often described as “socially evocative“, “socially situated“, “sociable”, “socially intelligent“ or “socially interactive“. Since the beginning of HRI studies up to today, researcher argue that social features of robots are crucial for a successful interaction between robots and people [1-3]. The requirements of social skills may differ depending on the degree of contact with humans (none to repeated long-term), a robot’s functionalities (limited, clearly defined to adaptive, shaped by learning), and the role of the robot (machine, tool to assistant, companion, partner) [2]. Given this wide spectrum of characteristics, there is a tendency in HRI research that any robot, which interacts with or is used by a person is claimed to be a social robot, may it be a floor cleaning vacuum robot or a seal shaped robotic companion for the elderly. A general definition of a social robot is “a physical entity embodied in a complex, dynamic, and social environment sufficiently empowered to behave in a manner conducive to its own goals and those of its community“ [1]. Other definitions of social robots include the following characteristics:

  • express and/or perceive emotions,
  • communicate with high-level dialogue,
  • learn models of or recognize other agents,
  • establish and/or maintain social relationships,
  • use natural cues (gaze, gesture, etc.),
  • exhibit distinctive personality and character,
  • learn and/or develop social competencies,
  • possess histories,
  • follow, adapt to and communicate understanding for social situation and rules.

The definition of social robots also depends on the approach to social interactions. Taking a human-centered view, social robots are described as “robots designed to interact with people in a human-like way“ [4]. Taking a more robot-centered view, social robots are defined as embodied agents as part of a heterogeneous group such that “they are able to recognize each other and engage in social interactions, they possess histories (perceive and interpret the world in terms of their own experience), and they explicitly communicate with and learn from each other“ [5]. A more detailed discussion of the human-centered versus the robot-centered view is given in chapter Paradigms in HRI: Approaches to social interactions with robots.

The term social robot is not without criticism. Kahn et al. hesitate to use this term by arguing that calling a robot social implies that the thing actually and in reality is social [6]. Instead, they introduced the alternative term robot others. Kahn et al. claim that robotic others makes less of a commitment to the ontological social status of a robot and also less of a commitment to the ways in which people interpret the social standing of a robot. However, the term social robot has gained general acceptance in HRI research today.

  1. Duffy, B.R., Anthropomorphism and the social robot. Robotics and autonomous systems, 2003. 42(3): p. 177-190.
  2. Dautenhahn, K., Socially intelligent robots: dimensions of human–robot interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2007. 362(1480): p. 679-704.
  3. Young, J.E., et al., Evaluating human-robot interaction. International Journal of Social Robotics, 2011. 3(1): p. 53-67.
  4. Breazeal, C., Social interactions in HRI: the robot view. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, 2004. 34(2): p. 181-186.
  5. Fong, T., I. Nourbakhsh, and K. Dautenhahn, A survey of socially interactive robots. Robotics and autonomous systems, 2003. 42(3): p. 143-166.
  6. Kahn, P.H., et al., Social and moral relationships with robotic others?, in IEEE International Symposium on Robots and Human Interactive Communication. 2004, IEEE. p. 545-550.

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