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Why people from a remote Indian village considered the water-gathering robot to be female?

Posted March 25, 2018

How do you take your water? For granted, we imagine. But for many people in the world ensuring water supply is a labour-intensive work, which requires daily trips to the nearest source. Scientists from the University of Glasgow and the Amrita University decided to explore how a social robot could help villagers in southern India with their daily water-gathering.

The ‘Husky’ robot had a male voice, but most users considered it to be a woman and somewhat alive, despite knowing there is someone controlling it. Image credit: University of Glasgow

Ayyampathy village in southern India does not have tap water, but it is not unique in this way. More than half of India’s population has no access to tap water in their homes. This means that people have to walk to the nearest wells and other sources every day to bring water home. This work is typically accomplished by women, despite being very physically taxing. Scientists wanted to see if this task could be made easier using a social robot, so they employed ‘Husky’ to help 11 volunteers in their daily water-gathering. ‘Husky’ can carry three 20-litre bottles at a time, speaks with its human accompanier and is controlled by researchers.

Robot, obviously, doesn’t get tired and is easy to use. It is a high-tech solution, but one very easy to get used to. However, these villagers have never seen a robot, which made scientists curious how they would interact with it. To make this bonding process easier, ‘Husky’ was actually talking to the volunteers (10 women and 1 man), encouraging them to place water bottles on top of it and reminding to wash hands before eating. After several days scientists surveyed participants and all of them said that ‘Husky’ made their lives easier. However, this experiment had an unexpected effect – all 11 participants (who were aged from 15 to 70 years) believed ‘Husky’ is actually alive.

Participants knew that ‘Husky’ is being controlled remotely by a researcher. However, for them it was still somewhat alive – that was the effect of it speaking. Dr Amol Deshmukh, computer scientists and the leader of the project, said: “We also asked if they thought the robot had a gender. More than a third of participants perceived it as ‘female’ although it communicated with a male-sounding voice and had no other gender-coded features, primarily because water-carrying is done mainly by women in their village”.

Devices like this make work of villagers that little bit easier. They can make a huge improvement in the quality of life of these people that don’t have an easy access to clean drinking water. However, introduction of robots in such remote locations is probably not the best solution, as integration of them would be challenging.


Source: University of Glasgow

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