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We like our Roombas polite and calm

We're happier with our robot vacuum cleaners when they show some character, say researchers from the Netherlands. But they have to have the right traits.

prototype robot vacuum cleaner asks for help
This prototype robot vacuum cleaner shows off its calm, cooperative personality by stopping, blinking its light, and making a sound to indicate it needs help. Video screenshot by Eric Smalley/CNET

Add personality to the list of must-have robot vacuum cleaner features. Turns out that showing some emotion makes you a better service robot, even if you're just a motorized disc that cleans floors for a living.

Researchers from Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands determined the personality traits (PDF) that people want to see in a robo-vac, then figured out how to make it display those traits using motion, sound, and lights.

People successfully identified the traits in a video of a fake robo-vac (a remote control box on wheels) going through the motions (see the video below).

People readily anthropomorphize objects, and Robo-vac makers can make their products more predictable by deliberately pulling our strings, according to the researchers, adding that if we know what our little helpers are doing and how they're likely to react, we're more satisfied.

The research is from late last year, but IEEE Spectrum's Evan Ackerman brought it to our attention today, pointing out the importance of robo-vacs' perceived behavior:

It's not just that it's possible to create a robot with a personality, but what's relevant is it actually makes a difference to the end user. This is a more important point than you might think; by way of example, consider the difference between the iRobot Roomba and the Neato XV-11. Which one of these vacuums cleans better is certainly up for debate (and we've debated it), but as we've pointed out in the past, iRobot has a perception problem with their pseudo-random method of cleaning versus the Neato's straight line technique. The XV-11 just seems smarter to people, whether or not it actually does a better job, and that makes a difference when people are deciding what vacuum they want to buy.

So what are the preferred robo-vac personality traits? The folks who went through the test wanted robot vacuums to be calm, in control of the situation, cooperative, efficient, polite, systematic, and to like routines.

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Those first three traits look to me like prerequisites for any robot behavior. Who wants a robot, however small and menial, to be wild, out of control, and uncooperative? I'm not sure about the liking routines part, though. Do you ever find yourself wondering whether your vacuum cleaner likes what it's doing? Me neither.