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Healthcare IT and Biotechnology News Release
Date of Publication: Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Of Device and Men: Android research helps explain human behavior

Karl MacDorman is on a journey to better understand what makes human beings tick. And the companion who helps him has been known to make ticking sounds.
INDIANAPOLIS –- Karl MacDorman is on a journey to better understand what makes human beings tick. And the companion who helps him has been known to make ticking sounds.

MacDorman is among a handful of experts in the emerging field of android science, a cross-disciplinary approach to test and, if possible, verify hypotheses about human behavior. He now lends that expertise to the School of Informatics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where he continues his research and also teaches graduate courses in the psychology of human-computer interaction.

“It is not possible – nor is it ethical – to conduct many kinds of experiments on humans,” said MacDorman, associate professor in the School’s human-computer interaction design program. “Very humanlike robots provide an experimental apparatus and test bed that has great potential to help neuroscientists, psychiatrists, social and cognitive scientists and others understand how and why we act the way we do.”

An android is a robot made to resemble a human and programmed to act like one. Before coming to IUPUI last November, MacDorman collaborated for more than five years with Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of one of the world’s foremost robotics laboratories, at Japan’s Osaka University. MacDorman was involved in the development of an android that was introduced to the world at the 2005 World Exposition in Japan.

Meet Repliee Q1Expo: “She” is a 30-something Japanese woman with realistic skin and a stylish hairdo, programmed with the ability to frown, smile, wave, cock an eyebrow in curiosity or surprise, gaze around the room, blink, appear to breathe and speak – albeit in a slightly Mr. Microphone sort of way. She’s powered by a nearby air compressor that puffs life into 42 actuators located in her upper body, creating nearly realistic movements and expressions.

“Because the android looks like a human being, we can expect it to elicit humanlike responses from those who come into contact with it,” said MacDorman. “You don’t find that kind of sensitivity when people come into contact with a robot that looks mechanical.”

When MacDorman talks about android science he sometimes alludes to what is called the “uncanny valley,” a phenomenon suggested nearly four decades ago by robotics pioneer Masahiro Mori. It means that the more realistic and humanlike a robot appears, the more positively a human will react to it, but only to a certain point where the resemblance actually causes a sense of repulsion – perhaps even a reminder of the beholder’s own mortality.

“The uncanny valley can, however, be seen in a positive light,” said MacDorman. “If very human-like robots are capable of eliciting human-directed expectations, human participants can be used to evaluate the human likeness of their behavior to an extent that would be impossible if mechanical-looking robots were used instead.”

MacDorman will share his research with other scientists attending the Fifth International Conference on Cognitive Science, July 26, in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He and Ishiguro are organizing a symposium focused on android science.

To view MacDorman and his colleagues’s work with Repliee Q1Expo, go to http://discoverychannel.ca/interactives/japan/main_frameset.html, click on “Thursday” and look for the video link.

Human computer-interaction design is a branch of informatics that studies and supports the design, development, and implementation of humanly usable and socially acceptable information technologies. The IU School of Informatics offers graduate programs in human-computer interaction design at its Bloomington and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campuses.

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Last Updated: 24 November 2007.