Marlena Fraune

Can humans and robots just get along?

Marlena Fraune is in a cafeteria in Japan, waiting to find out how people will interact with trash cans.

These aren’t your average trash cans—they’re sociable robots that bow, turn, spin, and waddle forward and backward on wheels. And Marlena isn’t your average cafeteria patron—she’s a Ph.D. student at IU Bloomington who is studying the psychology of human-robot interaction.

Very adorable in their solid-colored vinyl suits with “hand” appendages that resemble tiny seal fins, the trash cans are part of a collaboration between Marlena’s robotics lab at IU (the R House) and the ICD robotics lab at the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan. Marlena and her research team are putting the robots in public cafeterias to observe how robot behavior worsens or improves the way humans perceive and interact with them socially.

Marlena Fraune and two sociable trash robots
a red trash robot, a trash can, and a broom
Marlena working on one of the sociable trash robots

Would you put trash in this? Working on the sociable trash box studies through the IU R House laboratory has been a joy for Marlena Fraune. The research is pioneering in many ways, including its look at social group dynamics, or the “in groups” and “out groups” of human-robot interaction.

The robots are coming

Marlena helps design the robot behaviors and the experiments for “sociable trash box” studies, which explore our comfort level with groups of robots compared to individual robots. Robots will be integrated into our everyday routines sooner than we might think, Marlena says. “As technology progresses, we’re finding more robots in different places—educating children, taking care of the elderly, guiding people with mobility needs. And it’s important to understand how people respond to them.”

The team is looking at how humans perceive robots across cultures and continents—the difference between, say, a cafeteria in Japan and a cafeteria on the IU campus, where they ran the first and second experiments. “Western cultures might think of robots negatively, mostly because of movies like The Terminator,” Marlena says. “People also think robots might take their jobs. If you have these feelings, you might not want to cooperate with a robot to perform tasks.” Professor Eliot Smith from the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences is helping to incorporate the group psychology perspective—a new layer in human-robot interaction research.

“Forever” is exactly how long Marlena Fraune would like to study human-robot interaction—a booming field she’d never considered before coming to IU.

A dream path that started with a cup of tea

During a visit to IU when Marlena was shopping for psychology graduate programs, she met Professor Selma Šabanovic from the IU School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, whose offer of a cup of tea immediately made Marlena feel at home. But the pièce de résistance was the chance to study in Japan through the R-House lab at IU, where Professor Šabanovic leads postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students in a wide range of human-robot interaction research.

The robot designers at the Toyohashi University of Technology—Michio Okada, Ravindra de Silva, Satoru Kawakami, and Kazuya Sata—needed help creating experiments for the trash robots, and Professor Šabanovic thought Marlena would be a great fit. Looking for adventure, Marlena agreed, and she’s never looked back. Human-robot interaction is now her life passion.

I never thought I would get to study robots. I read about them—thank you, Isaac Asimov, and other authors—but I thought they were just science fiction. Well, they’re not just science fiction anymore.

Right place, right time

Marlena feels incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon this field. Human-robot interaction is definitely hot—robot companies are getting snatched up quickly these days by technology giants like Google. She feels even luckier to be at the R-House, where minimalistic robots are shaping what’s happening now, compared to similar labs that are taking 30 years to build complex robots. “What the R House is doing is relevant in the very near future. We’re working on robots that could be in people’s lives in a couple of years.”

Front door of IU R-House lab
one of the robots created at the R-House
Marlena smiling

It’s not an R House, it’s an R Home. The R House laboratory is Marlena’s home away from home, where postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate researchers from informatics, psychology, computer science, cognitive science, and criminal justice work on a variety of robot experiments.

Next stop: Anywhere

So much thinking occurs when you’re working with people who have new perspectives, Marlena says. “It’s really nice not to be stuck in a room alone trying to make your brain work. When we bring together our different interests in research, we make really interesting discoveries in those combinations.”

Making new research connections happens naturally here, she says, but it doesn’t hurt to have a lab professor who knows a lot of people. While at a conference, Professor Šabanovic introduced Marlena to a graduate student who is doing similar research, and the two will soon join forces for a new project in Germany. The road promises to be exciting, wherever she goes. “I love research, and I love having the freedom to decide what I want to research,” she says.

a red trash robot
a poster of illustrated robots hangs in the R-House lab
a very small simple yellow robot with craft googly eyes

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