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Google’s New Tech Can Read Your Body Language—Without Cameras

Google’s New Tech Can Read Your Body Language—Without Cameras

What if your computer decided not to blare out a notification jingle because it noticed you weren’t sitting at your desk? What if your TV saw you leave the couch to answer the front door and paused Netflix automatically, then resumed playback when you sat back down? What if our computers took more social cues from our movements and learned to be more considerate companions?

It sounds futuristic and perhaps more than a little invasive—a computer watching your every move? But it feels less creepy once you learn that these technologies don’t have to rely on a camera to see where you are and what you’re doing. Instead, they use radar. Google’s Advanced Technology and Products division—better known as ATAP, the department behind oddball projects such as a touch-sensitive denim jacket—has spent the past year exploring how computers can use radar to understand our needs or intentions and then react to us appropriately.

This is not the first time we’ve seen Google use radar to provide its gadgets with spatial awareness. In 2015, Google unveiled Soli, a sensor that can use radar’s electromagnetic waves to pick up precise gestures and movements. It was first seen in the Google Pixel 4’s ability to detect simple hand gestures so the user could snooze alarms or pause music without having to physically touch the smartphone. More recently, radar sensors were embedded inside the second-generation Nest Hub smart display to detect the movement and breathing patterns of the person sleeping next to it. The device was then able to track the person’s sleep without requiring them to strap on a smartwatch.

The same Soli sensor is being used in this new round of research, but instead of using the sensor input to directly control a computer, ATAP is instead using the sensor data to enable computers to recognize our everyday movements and make new kinds of choices.

“We believe as technology becomes more present in our life, it’s fair to start asking technology itself to take a few more cues from us,” says Leonardo Giusti, head of design at ATAP. In the same way your mom might remind you to grab an umbrella before you head out the door, perhaps your thermostat can relay the same message as you walk past and glance at it—or your TV can lower the volume if it detects you’ve fallen asleep on the couch.

Radar Research

Google ATAP demo

A human entering a computer’s personal space.

Courtesy of Google

Giusti says much of the research is based on proxemics, the study of how people use space around them to mediate social interactions. As you get closer to another person, you expect increased engagement and intimacy. The ATAP team used this and other social cues to establish that people and devices have their own concepts of personal space. 

Radar can detect you moving closer to a computer and entering its personal space. This might mean the computer can then choose to perform certain actions, like booting up the screen without requiring you to press a button. This kind of interaction already exists in current Google Nest smart displays, though instead of radar, Google employs ultrasonic sound waves to measure a person’s distance from the device. When a Nest Hub notices you’re moving closer, it highlights current reminders, calendar events, or other important notifications. 

The Future of Robot Nannies

The Future of Robot Nannies

Childcare is the most intimate of activities. Evolution has generated drives so powerful that we will risk our lives to protect not only our own children, but quite often any child, and even the young of other species. Robots, by contrast, are products created by commercial entities with commercial goals, which may—and should—include the well-being of their customers, but will never be limited to such. Robots, corporations, and other legal or non-legal entities do not possess the instinctual nature of humans to care for the young—even if our anthropomorphic tendencies may prompt some children and adults to overlook this fact.

As a result, it is important to take into account the likelihood of deception—both commercial deception through advertising and also self-deception on the part of parents—despite the fact that robots are unlikely to cause significant psychological damage to children and to others who may come to love them.

Neither television manufacturers, broadcasters, nor online game manufacturers are deemed liable when children are left for too long in front of their television. Robotics companies will want to be in the same position, as no company will want to be liable for damage to children, so it is likely that manufacturers will undersell the artificial intelligence (AI) and interactive capacities of their robots. It is therefore likely that any robots (and certainly those in jurisdictions with strong consumer protection) will be marketed primarily as toys, surveillance devices, and possibly household utilities. They will be brightly colored and deliberately designed to appeal to parents and children. We expect a variety of products, some with advanced capabilities and some with humanoid features. Parents will quickly discover a robot’s ability to engage and distract their child. Robotics companies will program 

experiences geared toward parents and children, just as television broadcasters do. But robots will always have disclaimers, such as “this device is not a toy and should only be used with adult supervision” or “this device is provided for entertainment only. It should not be considered educational.”

Nevertheless, parents will notice that they can leave their children alone with robots, just as they can leave them to watch television or to play with other children. Humans are phenomenal learners and very good at detecting regularities and exploiting affordances. Parents will quickly notice the educational benefits of robot nannies that have advanced AI and communication skills. Occasional horror stories, such as the robot nanny and toddler tragedy in the novel Scarlett and Gurl, will make headline news and remind parents how to use robots responsibly.

This will likely continue until or unless the incidence of injuries necessitates redesign, a revision of consumer safety standards, statutory notice requirements, and/or risk-based uninsurability, all of which will further refine the industry. Meanwhile, the media will also seize on stories of robots saving children in unexpected ways, as it does now when children (or adults) are saved by other young children and dogs. This should not make people think that they should leave children alone with robots, but given the propensity we already have to anthropomorphize robots, it may make parents feel that little bit more comfortable—until the next horror story makes headlines.

When it comes to liability, we should be able to communicate the same model of liability applied to toys to the manufacturers of robot nannies: Make your robots reliable, describe what they do accurately, and provide sufficient notice of reasonably foreseeable danger from misuse. Then, apart from the exceptional situation of errors in design or manufacture, such as parts that come off and choke children, legal liability will rest entirely with the parent or responsible adult, as it does now, and as it should under existing product liability law.