A purring robot built to spread happiness inspired curiosity and laughter from faculty and students alike.

Julienne Greer, theatre arts assistant professor, presented her humanlike robot, called PieBot, on Thursday on the sixth floor of the Central Library.

PieBot was built to eliminate human apathy toward robots and foster a sense of nurturing empathy, Greer said.

Greer pulled from different specialties, including from costume designers, programmers, comedians and engineers.

“Interdisciplinary isn’t just a buzzword,” Greer said.

Costume studio supervisor Kris O’Brien is making the robot look more appealing and approachable to people. After several sketches, the design started with a box found in the trash as a head and ended up as a testable prototype with eyes, hair and a body, O’Brien said.

“We have the mechanisms on the inside, but what do we see from the outside?” O’Brien said.

She said an important aspect of the robot is the head. The eyes illuminate and change colors, so it’s “not just a static thing on wheels.”

PieBot has hair made of soft yarn. It’s programmed to go up to someone and ask them to help adjust the hair after simulating waking up.

“We really wanted people to touch this robot,” Greer said. “How do you do that without saying 'please touch me?”

Anurag Uplanchiwar, computer science graduate student, said using humor to go about making robots more appealing to humans caught his attention. He said he was interested in the different perspectives going into making PieBot.

PieBot does not verbalize with words, but with abstract communication, similar to how R2-D2 communicates in Star Wars, Greer said. Greer enlisted a troupe of improvisational comedians from Flight 12 Improv to help create the sounds.

Members were given an emotion and told to act it out without thinking, Greer said. Some made noises, some spun around and one student even did a heel click.

Greer said all her research and design efforts are to make the robot more appealing to humans. She said a majority of American households will have robots by 2025.

“Robots are going to be with us,” Greer said. “Let’s figure out how to do this, and let’s figure out how to make it a positive experience.”

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