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Trust in robotics: the Cat Royale collaboration reveals what It takes

In a unique collaboration between computer scientists from the University of Nottingham and artists from Blast Theory, a groundbreaking project called "Cat Royale" has shed light on the intricate dynamics involved in trusting robots with the care of our loved ones – in this case, our feline friends.



The Cat Royale installation, which has been touring globally since its launch at the 2023 World Science Festival in Brisbane, Australia, revolves around a bespoke enclosure where three cats coexist with a robot arm for six hours a day over a twelve-day period. This multifaceted project has recently won a prestigious Webby award for its creative experience.

However, beyond its artistic merits, Cat Royale has yielded significant insights into the design and deployment of robots in environments shared with living beings. A research paper titled "Designing Multispecies Worlds for Robots, Cats, and Humans," presented at the annual Computer-Human Conference (CHI'24), where it won the coveted Best Paper award, outlines the crucial findings.

The study underscores that designing successful robotic interactions goes beyond the technology itself – it requires careful consideration of the entire environment in which the robot operates, as well as the involvement of human caretakers.

At the heart of Cat Royale is a robot arm designed to offer enrichment activities to the feline inhabitants, such as dragging a "mouse" toy along the floor, raising a feather "bird" into the air, and even offering treats. An AI system was trained to learn each cat's preferences, allowing for personalized experiences.

"At first glance, the project is about designing a robot to enrich the lives of a family of cats by playing with them," commented Professor Steve Benford from the University of Nottingham, who led the research. "Under the surface, however, it explores the question of what it takes to trust a robot to look after our loved ones and potentially ourselves."

In collaboration with Blast Theory, the research team gained invaluable insights into the design of robots and their interactions with cats. They had to engineer the robot to handle toys in ways that excited the cats while learning each feline's game preferences. Moreover, they designed the entire world in which the cats and robot coexisted, providing safe spaces for the cats to observe and approach the robot, and decorating the enclosure to optimize the robot's ability to detect approaching cats.

"The implication is designing robots involves interior design as well as engineering and AI," Benford explained. "If you want to introduce robots into your home to look after your loved ones, then you will likely need to redesign your home."

The research workshops for Cat Royale were held at the University of Nottingham's unique Cobotmaker Space, where stakeholders convened to consider the design of the robot and the welfare of the cats.

"As we learned through Cat Royale, creating a multispecies system—where cats, robots, and humans are all accounted for—takes more than just designing the robot," said Eike Schneiders, Transitional Assistant Professor in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. "We had to ensure animal well-being at all times, while simultaneously ensuring that the interactive installation engaged the (human) audiences around the world."

The Cat Royale project has brought to light the complexities involved in trusting robots with the care of living beings, be they pets or humans. As the research team discovered, it takes a carefully designed environment, attentive human involvement, and a deep understanding of the needs and behaviors of all participants – both robotic and living – to create a truly harmonious multispecies world.

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