Can the Relationship Between Humans and Horses Teach Us About Human-Robot Interaction?
For thousands of years, humans and horses have had a close working relationship that has impacted various aspects of our lives. Today, researchers at the University of Florida believe that studying this unique bond could provide valuable insights into building effective relationships between humans and robots.
According to Eakta Jain, an associate professor at UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, there is a lack of guiding principles for human-robot interaction. As we strive to improve how we interact with robots and autonomous vehicles, Jain realized that we can draw inspiration from the long-standing partnership between humans and horses.
Jain conducted a year-long field study at the UF Horse Teaching Unit in Gainesville, Florida, observing the special interactions between horses and humans. Her findings will be presented at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Hamburg, Germany.
The Role of Robots in Our Lives
Similar to horses in the past, robots are becoming an integral part of our daily lives. They assist with household chores, educate and entertain children, and even serve as therapy tools to improve mental and physical health. In industries such as manufacturing and warehousing, robots are collaborating with human workers as co-bots.
As a member of the UF Transportation Institute, Jain focused on studying how humans should interact with autonomous vehicles (AVs). While AVs can monitor nearby vehicles and driver attentiveness, horses have possessed these capabilities for centuries. Jain believes that we can learn from our partnership with horses to enhance the natural interaction between humans and AVs.
Bringing Together Engineering and Equine Sciences
Previous studies have explored humans’ relationship with dogs, but Jain and her colleagues at the College of Engineering and UF Equine Sciences are the first to combine engineering and robotics with expertise in horse behavior and training.
Jain collaborated closely with Joel McQuagge, an expert in equine behavior at UF’s Horse Teaching Unit, to conduct on-the-ground field studies. They observed classes, interviewed horse experts, and collected qualitative data for analysis. The collaboration between engineering, animal sciences, and qualitative research has resulted in actionable insights for human-robot interaction researchers and robot designers.
Applying Horse Behavior to Robot Design
Jain’s observations revealed that horses communicate through nonverbal cues, such as the positioning of their ears. They also highlighted the importance of respect in the horse-human partnership. For future human-robot interactions, Jain suggests incorporating similar nonverbal expressions in robots to enhance communication and exploring ways for robots to demonstrate respect to humans.
Despite growing up with robots, Jain found her study of the human-horse relationship to be a transformative experience. She hopes to own a horse one day, as riding and connecting with them firsthand deepened her understanding of the unique bond between humans and horses.