An Indian-origin computer scientist based at the University of Glasgow in Scotland marked World Water Day today by highlighting how residents of a remote Indian village benefited from a social robot named 'Husky' helping with their daily chores.
Dr Amol Deshmukh, a research associate at the university's School of Computing Science, had completed the project recently with partners from Amrita University to explore how a water-carrying robot would affect the lives of villagers in Ayyampathy in southern India.
The research team visited the village in November last to use a four-wheeled device from Clearpath Robotics to help 11 volunteers from Ayyampathy's 200 residents carry water to their houses from the local well.
The robot could carry three 20-litre bottles at a time, and communicate using a synthetic male voice. The robot's motion and speech were both controlled by the researchers via remote control. The researchers were keen to see not just how much labour could be saved by offering villagers the use of the Husky, but also how people who had never seen a robot for themselves before would interact with it.
"Most of the research carried out to date on human-robot interactions are carried out in lab environments in urban settings, with people who have developed some conception of what robots are and how they work by seeing depictions of them in TV and film. We wanted to see how people from considerably more remote rural populations would view robots, which have a lot of labour-saving potential," said Deshmukh.
The robot communicated with the volunteers, 10 of whom were women and one of whom was a man and who ranged in age between 15 and 70, to encourage them to place the water jugs on top of it and to show it the way to their homes.
Once the volunteers decanted the water into their storage containers at home, the robot thanked them and reminded them to wash their hands before their next meal.
"Another thing that is unique about this study is it is making an effort to understand the challenges of introducing robotic solutions in a real life rural setting. This is an essential step towards informing design decisions for robotic products that seek to address the populations at the bottom of the economic pyramid," said Akshay Nagarajan from Amrita University.
After several days of using the Husky, the team surveyed each of the participants about their perceptions of the robot and how helpful they found it. Every one of them said the robot made their lives easier, and they unanimously reported that they enjoyed working with the robot. Interestingly, they were also unanimous on the robot being alive', despite being aware that it was being controlled remotely.
Deshmukh added: "We also asked if they thought the robot had a gender. More than a third of participants perceived it as female' although it communicated with a male-sounding voice and had no other gender-coded features, primarily because water-carrying is done mainly by women in their village.
"It's clear that labour-saving devices like these bring real benefits to remote communities, and we're keen to do more work in the future with our partners in India to explore these issues in more depth."
The research team comprised of Deshmukh from University of Glasgow and Sooraj Krishna, Nagarajan Akshay, Vennila Vilvanathan, Sivaprasad J V, and Rao R Bhavani from Amrita University, Kerala.
The study was funded by Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance (SICSA) and Amrita University.
The researchers believe robot helpers are ideally-placed to help achieve the UN's sustainable development goals of bridging the digital divide and opening up beneficial technology to people around the world.