Fritzchen, Robo, Jürgen, Sam und James –these are the names of the new colleagues at VACOM’s production plant. They got them from their team mates, because the five hard-working transport assistants are no humans, but proANT 436 transport robots by ASTI InSystems. Their implementation in the fleet is a good example of how the robot integration in a human team can succeed. The robot fleet was introduced in a social, more human way, so that acceptance was higher.
The proANT Fleet at VACOM
In order to stay competitive and innovative implementing Industry 4.0 technologies, VACOM commissioned ASTI InSystems to install an intelligent transport system in its new plant in Thuringia. The transport solution designed by ASTI InSystems consists of a fleet of five proANT 436 and one proANT 576 robots, which not only transport assembly parts but also communicate with the transport control system, react to their environment in a smart way and thus contribute to a more comfortable and safer working environment for their human colleagues. This makes them an important part of the Smart Factory – but for the VACOM team, they have more value than their technical features. On Facebook, VACOM writes: “Our five transport robots are like employees to us. So of course they also deserve names! And after an internal survey, the five proANT 436 were named Fritzchen, Robo, Jürgen, Sam and James. But why actually?
Why do we treat robots like humans?
This trend has probably its evolutionary origin in anthropomorphism. This term describes the attribution of human features to non-human beings or objects. It is something we do often (especially good to observe when dealing for example with pets), and probably common since early human history. The theory of many psychologists is that, for early humans, anthropomorphism was a key to help them better understanding the world around them. In fact, if we think that an interaction partner is like us, we have a clear framework to deal with him/her. We are human, and if we assume as a basic rule that others beings also have human features, we can understand them better, act effectively and interact better with them. In social interaction with other people this strategy may have been so effective that we now apply it to everything that can interact with us as a standard response. Not only that – we may also feel safer if we can apply this process. This is because we are less afraid of what we understand.
Of course, this assumption is wrong. A robot is no human, and our pets are also no humans either. Unlike dogs or cats, however, we can make our robots as human-like as possible – the more familiar they are to us, the better we should be able to understand them, at least theoretically, and thus integrate them into our everyday lives.
Examples of robots humanization
How do we translate this knowledge into reality? Research and development should keep it in mind, in order to design user-friendly robots. In the industry, introducing new installed robots in a positive way to their team mates increases the acceptance. The final goal is, that humans see the robots as a help, otherwise integration might fail. VACOM’s approach is successful, because it enables employees to get to know the robots in a fun way and to integrate them in a social setting, not only in the product manufacturing flow but also in the team community. We will analyse this process in further articles about the social integration of robots, and then present some practical tips to facilitate this integration. We will also take a closer look at why the VACOM fleet was actually only christened with male names, we will explore why this is more common (with the exception of our ‘Gisela’ at Knorr), and which meaning gender has in robotics.
Summarized: It is normal for us to humanize robots and we cannot avoid it. We can see it as an opportunity which contributes to the acceptance of robots, so that it will help ensuring a smooth cooperation between humans and robots.
Our original report to the VACOM project:
Further literature about this topic, and which complications have to be considered in the humanization of robots:
Anthropomorphism and the Social Robot (Brian R. Duffy, 2003): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921889002003743
Anthropomorphism in Human–Robot Co-evolution (Luisa Damiano, Paul Dumouchel, 2018): https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00468/full
Company from the Uncanny Valley: A Psychological Perspective on Social Robots, Anthropomorphism and the Introduction of Robots to Society (Janina Luise Samuel, 2019) https://repozytorium.amu.edu.pl/handle/10593/25192