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.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Gurit E. Birnbaum

Moran Mizrahi

Guy Hoffman

Harry T. Reis

Eli J Finkel

Omri Sass

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.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

Sign up here

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?

Meet Travis.

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.

Courtesy of Gurit E. Birnbaum

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.

Lean In

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.”

Featured Faculty

Eli J Finkel

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Meeri Kim is a freelance science and health writer.

About the Research

Birnbaum, Gurit E., Moran Mizrahi, Guy Hoffman, Harry T. Reis, Eli J. Finkel, and Omri Sass. 2016. “What Robots Can Teach Us About Intimacy: The Reassuring Effects of Robot Responsiveness to Human Disclosure.” Computers in Human Behavior. 63: 416–423.

Read the original

Editor’s Picks

Careers

Podcast: How to Be a Great Mentor

Plus, some valuable career advice that applies to just about everyone.

Marketing

A New Way to Persuade Kids to Drink More Water and Less Soda

Getting children to make healthy choices is tricky—and the wrong message can backfire.

Innovation

How Can Social Science Become More Solutions-Oriented?

A conversation between researchers at Kellogg and Microsoft explores how behavioral science can best be applied.

Innovation

Buying a Company for Its Talent? Beware of Hidden Legal Risks.

Acquiring another firm’s trade secrets—even unintentionally—could prove costly.

Careers

Take 5: Tips for Widening—and Improving—Your Candidate Pool

Common biases can cause companies to overlook a wealth of top talent.

Innovation

Everyone Wants Pharmaceutical Breakthroughs. What Drives Drug Companies to Pursue Them?

A new study suggests that firms are at their most innovative after a financial windfall.

Careers

4 Key Steps to Preparing for a Business Presentation

Don’t let a lack of prep work sabotage your great ideas.

Healthcare

Video: How Open Lines of Communication Can Improve Healthcare Outcomes

Training physicians to be better communicators builds trust with patients and their loved ones.

Operations

Here’s a Better Way to Schedule Surgeries

A new tool could drive savings of 20 percent while still keeping surgeons happy.

Politics & Elections

Why Economic Crises Trigger Political Turnover in Some Countries but Not Others

The fallout can hinge on how much a country’s people trust each other.

Marketing

Building Strong Brands: The Inside Scoop on Branding in the Real World

Tim Calkins’s blog draws lessons from brand missteps and triumphs.

Economics

How the Coffee Industry Is Building a Sustainable Supply Chain in an Unstable Region

Three experts discuss the challenges and rewards of sourcing coffee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.