How a ‘horse whisperer’ can help engineers build better robots
A news release published recently on the Science Daily website describes a new way in which horses can help humans–and it involves robots.
“Humans and horses have enjoyed a strong working relationship for nearly 10,000 years–a partnership that transformed how food was produced, people were transported and even how wars were fought and won,” the release says. “Today, we look to horses for companionship, recreation and as teammates in competitive activities like racing, dressage and showing. Can these age-old interactions between people and their horses teach us something about building robots designed to improve our lives? Researchers with the University of Florida say ‘yes.’
” ‘There are no fundamental guiding principles for how to build an effective working relationship between robots and humans,’ says Eakta Jain, an associate professor of computer and information science and engineering at UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. ‘As we work to improve how humans interact with autonomous vehicles and other forms of AI, it occurred to me that we’ve done this before with horses. This relationship has existed for millennia but was never leveraged to provide insights for human-robot interaction.’ “
Jain, who did her doctoral work at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a year of field work observing the special interactions between horses and humans at the UF Horse Teaching Unit in Gainesville, Florida. She presented her findings last last month (April 2023) at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Hamburg, Germany.
Companions and teammates
“Like horses did thousands of years before, robots are entering our lives and workplaces as companions and teammates,” the news release notes. “They vacuum our floors, help educate and entertain our children, and studies are showing that social robots can be effective therapy tools to help improve mental and physical health. Increasingly, robots are found in factories and warehouses, working collaboratively with human workers and sometimes even called co-bots.
“As a member of the UF Transportation Institute, Jain was leading the human factor subgroup that examines how humans should interact with autonomous vehicles, or AVs.
” ‘For the first time, cars and trucks can observe nearby vehicles and keep an appropriate distance from them as well as monitor the driver for signs of fatigue and attentiveness,’ Jain says. ‘However, the horse has had these capabilities for a long time. I thought why not learn from our partnership with horses for transportation to help solve the problem of natural interaction between humans and AVs.’
On the heels of dogs
Although our history with animals has been used before to help shape our future with AI, most studies to date have been inspired by man’s relationships with dogs. “Jain and her colleagues in the College of Engineering and UF Equine Sciences are the first to bring together engineering and robotics researchers with horse experts and trainers to conduct on-the-ground field studies with the animals,” the release states.
“The multidisciplinary collaboration involved expertise in engineering, animal sciences and qualitative research methodologies, Jain explains. She first reached out Joel McQuagge, from UF’s equine behavior and management program who oversees the UF Horse Teaching Unit. He hadn’t thought about this connection between horses and robots, but he provided Jain with full access, and she spent months observing classes. She interviewed and observed horse experts, including Thoroughbred trainers and devoted horse owners. Christina Gardner-McCune, an associate professor in UF’s department of computer and information science and engineering, provided expertise in qualitative data analysis.
“Data collected through observations and thematical analyses resulted in findings that can be applied by human-robot interaction researchers and robot designers. ‘Some of the findings are concrete and easy to visualize, while others are more abstract,’ Jain says. ‘For example, we learned that a horse speaks with its body. You can see its ears pointing to where something caught its attention. We could build in similar types of nonverbal expressions in our robots, like ears that point when there is a knock on the door or something visual in the car when there’s a pedestrian on that side of the street.’ “
The notion of respect
One of the study’s more abstract and groundbreaking findings is the notion of respect–something for which most trainers look (or try to cultivate) when first working with a horse.
” ‘We don’t typically think about respect in the context of human-robot interactions,’ Jain says. ‘What ways can a robot show you that it respects you? Can we design behaviors similar to what the horse uses? Will that make the human more willing to work with the robot?'”
According to the release, Jain is originally from New Delhi and grew up with robots the way many people grow up with animals. That’s because her father is an engineer who created educational and industrial robots, while her mother was a computer science teacher who oversaw her school’s robotics club. ” ‘Robots were the subject of many dinner table conversations,’ Jain is reported as saying, ‘so I was exposed to human-robot interactions early.’
“However, during her yearlong study of the human-horse relationship, [Jain] learned how to ride a horse and says she hopes to one day own a horse. ‘At first, I thought I could learn by observing and talking to people,’ she says. ‘There is no substitute for doing, though. I had to feel for myself how the horse-human partnership works. From the first time I got on a horse, I fell in love with them.’