Research Asks: Can Robots Get Us to Follow COVID Safety Rules?

By Chris Carroll | Illustration by JASON A. KEISLING

One theory of robots is that they exist mainly for “3D jobs”—dirty, dangerous or dull. A new project by Maryland robotics researchers adds two more D’s—delicate and divisive—that surely apply to efforts to persuade fellow humans to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. (Check out the epic tantrums on YouTube for proof.)

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, they’re exploring how autonomous robots could encourage social distancing in crowds, or even remotely monitor individuals for signs of illness. In addition to the technical challenges of designing such a system, there’s the social challenge as well.

“We don’t want people to feel like their privacy has been intruded upon, but more like a friendly companion has come to help them,” says project leader Dinesh Manocha, a professor with appointments in computer science, electrical and computer engineering and UMD’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).

In one scenario, the robot could speak to people, says Assistant Research Professor Aniket Bera in UMIACS, the project co-leader: “Hey guys, you’re a little close—could you make more space?” Or it could whisk through a crowd and unobtrusively “herd” people apart. One big challenge, Manocha says, is a robot smart enough not to try to break up families out for a stroll.

For a longer version of this story, visit Maryland Today.


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