It’s official: the robotics industry is going to the dogs. Or at least, it should if engineers want to know how to design machines that can interact with humans.

In a recent issue of the journal Animal Cognition, Gabriella Lakatos of the Hungarian Academy of Science and Eötvös Loránd University led a study that looked at what dogs do around robots. She and her team thought that dogs might react better — that is, more socially — to robots that give social “cues.” It may sound odd to study how a robot interacts with dogs. But the researchers note such experiments might provide insight into the underlying mechanisms of how both dogs and people see machines.

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The experiment involved a robot that looks a bit like a parking meter with arms and white-gloved hands. The scientists tested 41 dogs, divided into two groups.

One group of dogs would watch as their owner interacted with another person, and then an ‘asocial’ interaction between the owner and the robot. The second group of dogs would see the owner-robot interaction first.

To test how the dogs were seeing the humans and robots, the experimenters put a piece of food into a flowerpot, allowing the dog to see where it went. They then had both humans and robots point to the food.

They found that when the robot was just pointing, with no other gestures, the dogs were less interested in the food and didn’t spend as much time looking at the robot’s “head.” But if the robot said the dog’s name, the animals were more interested. In addition, the dogs seemed to have an easier time finding the hidden food when the robot acted more human-like.

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An additional factor, the researchers said, was that the dogs, after seeing their humans interact with the robot, talking to it and behaving socially, had an easier time socially engaging with the machine, which in turn made it easier for the dogs to find the food; they were better able to “read” the robot.

A key finding was that the robot doesn’t have to look much like person. As long as it behaves like one, the dogs seem able to let the robot’s looks slide. “Roboticists who design interactive robots should look into the sociality and behavior of their designs, even if they do not embody human-like characteristics,” Lakatos said in a press release.

Credit: Gabriella Lakatos, Hungarian Academy of Science and Eotvos Lorand University