How do you feel about getting undressed in front of a robot?

New research suggests humans may be willing to take off their clothes in front of Star Wars robot R2-D2, but undressing in front of the more human-like C-3PO may be asking too much.

Dr Christoph Bartneck says new tests have found we tend to feel reluctant to smash a robot to pieces, or we may refuse to undress in front of one, because we perceive robots as being "somewhat alive".

And the more human characteristics a robot has, the more our hesitation grows.


Dr Bartneck is a computer scientist at the University of Canterbury and has been at the forefront of human-robot interaction research for more than 10 years in New Zealand and overseas.

He said experiments had revealed an interesting relationship between humans and robots.

"Research studies show us people are reluctant to kill robots with perceived intelligence or that are thought to look human," he said. "We're interested in finding out why they do or don't want to take that step."

Dr Bartneck said it was an important theory to explore as more human-like robots, such as automatic vacuum cleaners, are introduced to homes.

The social side of a robot is evolving.

"When robots enter the home ... they become social actors and that also means that they have to know and respect the values and social norms that we have. And only then will they be acceptable in the home," he said.

"If a robot comes around and acts very inappropriately then we probably would not be very happy with having him. That's why it is important to pay attention to the social aspect of robotics, not only the functional ones, in terms of how quickly can you wash the dishes. Of course that's nice (to know how efficient a robot is) but that's not the whole thing - human communication and human interaction is quite difficult."

Studies show people can also get embarrassed around robots.

"Particularly if a robot looks like us and we're asked to do something with it that we probably wouldn't do with a stranger, like take our clothes off for example.

"From these research findings we know people perceive some robots as having intentional behaviour and being somewhat alive. But we've got a fair way to go before we see them as our equals."

The research is helping improve the way robots worldwide are designed and perform.

Dr Bartneck's group of two academic staff, three PhD students and two master's students are working through a research programme focused on human-robot interaction.

"We're hoping to come up with a computer model for human characteristics within robots. It'll take us another step closer to making robots that are more like us and maybe another step towards seeing them as our equals, who knows?"