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Why roboticists should prioritize human factors?

As robots proliferate beyond controlled factory settings into unpredictable human environments, researchers emphasize the need to consider human factors from the very start of development.

Dr. Kelly Hale of nonprofit engineering lab Draper sees many robots being deployed that have to operate alongside or cooperatively with people - from manufacturing cobots to warehouse robots to autonomous vehicles. But too often, human elements are an afterthought rather than a core design principle.

Hale outlines three high-level considerations to create robots that integrate successfully with human collaborators: define the end goal for human-robot collaboration, play to the complementary strengths and limitations of each, and optimize the communication interface between them.

"Human systems engineering combines humans and technology so the overall system is more capable than either alone," Hale said. "It's understanding human capabilities and limitations early on to build systems that fill gaps but also maximize human strengths."

For instance, self-driving cars have some superior senses like 360-degree lidar vision but still struggle with the nuance of social dynamics on roads. Humans readily interpret complex cues from other drivers but have significant blind spots. Designing for symbiosis leverages the best of both.

This requires viewing the human role early on, not as an afterthought once technical functionality is done. "With early design changes, that interface could have been more useful," Hale explained. "Once hardware is set, we have to work around those constraints."

Building appropriate trust between humans and autonomous systems is another key. This relies on giving people accurate mental models of robots' abilities so confidence matches competency.

Over-communication erodes trust as fast as under-communication, Hale said. Like the infamous Clippy office assistant, robots that interrupt constantly with unneeded advice anger more than aid users. "False alarm" notifications fatigue operators and train them to ignore the system.

Maintaining robots to minimize downtime also eases acceptance by keeping them reliable teammates rather than liabilities.

Overall, incorporating human collaboration and communication from the ground up results in robots that enhance users rather than undermine them. "It's about combining humans and technology so the system is more useful than either alone," Hale said.

With human-centered design, robotics promises to overcome isolated limitations and create integrated systems where human and machine harmoniously augment each other's capabilities.

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