Humans and horses have enjoyed a strong working relationship for nearly 10,000 years; a collaboration that changed food production, the transportation of people, and even how wars were fought and won. Today we look at horses in companionship, recreation and as teammates in competitive activities such as racing, dressage and showing.
Can these centuries-old interactions between humans and their horses teach us something about building robots to improve our lives? Researchers at the University of Florida say yes.
“There are no fundamental guiding principles for how to create effective working relationships between robots and humans,” said Eakta Jain, associate professor of computer and information science and engineering in 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 has never been used to provide insights into human-robot interactions. “.
Jane, who did her doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, spent a year doing fieldwork observing specific interactions between horses and humans at the UF Horse Teaching Unit in Gainesville, Florida. He will present his findings today at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Hamburg, Germany.
Like horses thousands of years ago, robots are entering our lives and workplaces as companions and teammates. They clean our floors, help educate and entertain our children, and studies show that social robots can be effective therapy tools to help improve mental and physical health. More and more robots are found in factories and warehouses that collaborate with human workers and are sometimes even called cobots.
As a member of the UF Transportation Institute, Jane led a human factors subgroup studying how humans should interact with autonomous vehicles, or AVs.
“For the first time, cars and trucks can observe nearby vehicles and maintain an appropriate distance from them, as well as monitor the driver for fatigue and attentiveness,” Jain said. “However, the horse has had these capabilities for a long time. I thought why not learn from our collaboration with horses for transportation to help solve the problem of natural interactions between humans and AVs.”
Looking to our history with animals to help shape our future with robots is not a new concept, although much of the research has been inspired by humans’ interactions with dogs. Jane and her colleagues in the College of Engineering and UF Equine Sciences are the first to bring together engineering and robotics researchers with equine experts and trainers to conduct on-site field studies with animals.
The multidisciplinary collaboration included expertise in engineering, animal sciences and qualitative research methodologies, Jain explained. She first contacted Joel McQuag of UF’s Equine Behavior and Management Program, who oversees the UF equine training department. He hadn’t thought of this connection between horses and robots, but he gave Jane full access, and she spent months watching the lessons. He interviewed and observed equine experts, including thoroughbred trainers and dedicated horse owners. Christina Gardner-McCune, associate professor in UF’s Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering, provided qualitative data analysis expertise.
Data collected through observations and thematic analysis 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,” he says. “For example, we learned that a horse speaks with its body. You can see his ears showing where something caught his attention. We can create similar types of non-verbal expressions in our robots, like ears that point when tapped. the door or something visual in the car when there’s a pedestrian on that side of the street.”
A more abstract and groundbreaking discovery is the concept of respect. When a trainer first works with a horse, he looks for signs of respect from the horse for its human partner.
“We don’t usually think about respect in the context of human-robot interactions,” says Jane. “How can a robot show you respect? Can we shape the behavior a horse uses? Will it make a human more willing to work with a robot?”
Jain, who hails from New Delhi, says she grew up with robots the way people grow up with animals. His father is an engineer who made educational and industrial robots, and his mother was a computer science teacher who led her school’s robotics club.
“Robots were a topic of conversation around the dinner table,” he says, “so I was exposed to human-robot interactions early on.”
However, during her year-long study of the human-horse relationship, she learned how to ride a horse and says she hopes to one day own one.
“At first I thought I could learn by observing and talking to people,” he says. “However, it cannot be replaced. I got to experience for myself how the horse-human partnership works. From the first time I sat on a horse, I fell in love with them.”