Innovation Jan 5, 2017
Need to Vent? Try Talking to a Robot.
Social robots can boost our self-esteem and offer a shoulder to cry on.
Science fiction has long predicted that robots will become a ubiquitous part of our future, both as workers and companions. However, we are not there yet.
to your inbox.
The machines we use today mostly look and act like the Roomba vacuum: they do their job efficiently, but empathy is not their strong suit. Which begs the question: Can humans really form an emotional connection with a machine?
New research from Kellogg’s Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations, explores whether humans will be able to bond with machines that appear to understand, validate, and care about them.
“We know from the human–human interaction research that having someone act responsively makes you feel more confident and take more risks,” Finkel says. “Does interacting with a responsive robot have similar consequences?”
His research shows that, indeed, a robot’s social responsiveness can win humans over.
“If we can program robots to engage in responsive social interaction that makes us feel good, then robots can do a lot of jobs,” says Finkel, who is also a professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. “There could be a robot receptionist at the front desk, robots used as greeters for people coming down the street, or for retail sales.”
A Robot with Emotional Intelligence?
Invented by Guy Hoffman at Cornell University, Travis is a socially expressive robot that sits about a foot tall, looks like a small alien creature, and can perform basic gestures like nodding and swaying. Travis was originally designed as a robotic speaker dock and musical listening companion that can receive and play audio from a smartphone, while also dancing to the beat.
But in a recent study spearheaded by Gurit Birnbaum at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center, Finkel, Hoffman, and colleagues—Moran Mizrahi also at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center, Harry Reis at the University of Rochester, and Omri Sass at Cornell Tech—used Travis for a different purpose.
They modified Travis so it could communicate using text displayed on a small tablet screen. Could Travis then console people who had gone through a difficult experience?
The researchers asked 102 participants to explain a distressing personal event to Travis. The robot then responded in one of two ways: by nodding, swaying slightly to mimic breathing, and displaying supportive text, like “I completely understand what you have been through,” or by not moving at all and displaying emotionally flat text, like, “Okay, please continue.”
Participants were deliberately misled as to how Travis worked. They were led to believe that he used voice recognition technology to process their stories. In reality, its actions and words were controlled by what the researchers call a Wizard-of-Oz setup: a person listening to the stories and observing the interactions before choosing Travis’s response.
Then participants completed surveys to assess perceptions of how understood, validated, and cared for they felt during the interaction with Travis. They rated statements such as “The robot was aware of what I was thinking and feeling” or “The robot participant really listened to me” on a 5-point scale.
“Robots are getting more involved in daily life, and we might not have to look too far in the future before robots might play an emotionally significant role in our lives.”
A second study used a similar setup, but investigated whether responsive robots have the power to boost confidence. The researchers had participants tell Travis about a good experience they had on a date. Travis’s text responses for the positive event included “Wow, that’s really great!” and “What a pleasant experience!”
Participants then completed the same questionnaire as did participants in the first study. They then went on to create a two-minute videotaped introduction of themselves to a potential romantic partner and rated their self-perceived attractiveness on a similar scale after watching the video they had made.
So were participants charmed by a supportive Travis?
Participants in both studies responded to the survey questions by saying they found Travis more social and competent when the robot emotionally engaged with them. They were also more open to the idea of robot companionship after interacting with Travis when he responded emotionally as opposed to when he was unresponsive.
In addition, researchers witnessed participants leaning forward more, and making more eye contact, when Travis responded with emotion and consolation. These “approach behaviors” typically signal warmth and openness. What about boosting self-confidence? In the second study, talking to a responsive Travis led participants to feel like they were more desirable when introducing themselves to the potential romantic partner.
Our Future Robot Companions
Although the results do show promise for robots as emotional companions, Finkel cautions that the work remains a proof-of-concept study only. Travis had a human puppeteer behind the scenes, and programming a responsive robot that can truly catch the nuances of human communication will be far more difficult. “Programming robots to put together cars or vacuum floors doesn’t involve any social exchange, and those are in some sense much simpler things to do,” he says. “We’re now dealing with a much more difficult set of tasks that requires social sensitivity with humans.” However, the day that engineers do create affordable responsive robots, they could take over some social jobs that are relatively repetitive or where there is a shortage of workers.
Tokyo-based SoftBank Robotics’s humanoid robot named Pepper already has a place at retail stores in Japan, answering questions about smartphones. In France, supermarket giant Carrefour is testing seven Pepper units as shopping companions that suggest recipes or wine pairings. And one could envision a similar robot that checks in on patients at the hospital or acts as emotional support for the elderly. “People are living longer, many are outliving spouses, and a lot of people are lonely for whatever reason. Socially sensitive robots could serve as companions for those kinds of people,” Finkel says. “Robots are getting more involved in daily life, and we might not have to look too far in the future before robots might play an emotionally significant role in our lives.”
Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a LayoffIt’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
6 Takeaways on Inflation and the Economy Right NowAre we headed into a recession? Kellogg’s Sergio Rebelo breaks down the latest trends.
What Is the Purpose of a Corporation Today?Has anything changed in the three years since the Business Roundtable declared firms should prioritize more than shareholders?
How to Get the Ear of Your CEO—And What to Say When You Have ItEvery interaction with the top boss is an audition for senior leadership.
Why We Can’t All Get Away with Wearing Designer ClothesIn certain professions, luxury goods can send the wrong signal.
Why You Should Skip the Easy Wins and Tackle the Hard Task FirstNew research shows that you and your organization lose out when you procrastinate on the difficult stuff.
How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
Which Form of Government Is Best?Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
How Old Are Successful Tech Entrepreneurs?A definitive new study dispels the myth of the Silicon Valley wunderkind.
How Offering a Product for Free Can BackfireIt seems counterintuitive, but there are times customers would rather pay a small amount than get something for free.
Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They TakeA new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.