Robin Read


The world of animation has painted an inspiring image of what the robots of the future could be. Taking the robots R2D2 and C3PO from the Star Wars films as representative examples, these robots are portrayed as being more than just machines, rather, they are presented as intelligent and capable social peers, exhibiting many of the traits that people have also. These robots have the ability to interact with people, understand us, and even relate to us in very personal ways through a wide repertoire of social cues. As robotic technologies continue to make their way into society at large, there is a growing trend toward making social robots. The field of Human-Robot Interaction concerns itself with studying, developing and realising these socially capable machines, equipping them with a very rich variety of capabilities that allow them to interact with people in natural and intuitive ways, ranging from the use of natural language, body language and facial gestures, to more unique ways such as expression through colours and abstract sounds. This thesis studies the use of abstract, expressive sounds, like those used iconically by the robot R2D2. These are termed Non-Linguistic Utterances (NLUs) and are a means of communication which has a rich history in film and animation. However, very little is understood about how such expressive sounds may be utilised by social robots, and how people respond to these. This work presents a series of experiments aimed at understanding how NLUs can be utilised by a social robot in order to convey affective meaning to people both young and old, and what factors impact on the production and perception of NLUs. Firstly, it is shown that not all robots should use NLUs. The morphology of the robot matters. People perceive NLUs differently across different robots, and not always in a desired manner. Next it is shown that people readily project affective meaning onto NLUs though not in a coherent manner. Furthermore, people's affective inferences are not subtle, rather they are drawn to well established, basic affect prototypes. Moreover, it is shown that the valence of the situation in which an NLU is made, overrides the initial valence of the NLU itself: situational context biases how people perceive utterances made by a robot, and through this, coherence between people in their affective inferences is found to increase. Finally, it is uncovered that NLUs are best not used as a replacement to natural language (as they are by R2D2), rather, people show a preference for them being used alongside natural language where they can play a supportive role by providing essential social cues.

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