Space & Innovation

Why We Want Our Robots to Like Us

We tend to be polite to our digital assistants and companion robots ... because we're wired that way.

Are you polite when you talk to Siri, or Cortana, or any of the other machines in your life?

Most of us are, experts say, even though what we're actually talking to is nothing more than compiled code -- an endless stream of 1s and 0s with no real personality or feelings.

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So why is it that, when interacting with personal digital assistants or the emerging breed of companion robots, we feel the need to be polite, to be friendly, to want our machines to like us back?

The answer may be quite straightforward: Just like our machines, we're simply wired that way.

"Humans are innately driven to be social creatures," says Jason Seacat, associate professor of psychology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. "As technology continues to develop an interface that is ever more lifelike, people are increasingly able to identify with technology. This is really no different from the tendency that humans have to anthropomorphize animals in nature. We see the polar bear as something cute and cuddly, and we try to imbue human characteristics to it."

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Julienne Greer, a theater professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, has a unique insight into the issue of Human Robot Interaction, or HRI. In recent years, Greer and her students have worked directly with computer scientists and engineers in the U-T system, creating the new class "Humans and Robots" to explore the emerging emotional connections between people and machines.

The UT-Arlington Department of Theatre Arts has even purchased a model of the social robot Buddy to study HRI issues.

Greer's research suggests that the tendency to connect emotionally to robots may go deeper than conditioned politeness or subconscious anthropomorphization.

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"My time spent in theatre arts seems to indicate that we are all wired to connect to empathetic human experiences, especially emotional experiences, and we feel the most 'like ourselves' when we do," Greer says.

"Our technology has reached a point where we have effectively made machines that look like human beings and it is my belief that we wish to emotionally bond with these machines," Greer says. "Being polite and hoping they like us may be the first step in that bonding."

Digital assistants like Siri -- or companion robots like Buddy, Jibo and the Japanese social 'bot Pepper -- also have another thing going for them when it comes to winning our affection: They're reliable.

"Our emotional relationships in life are complex and messy," Greer says. "As companion robots become more familiar in our homes and work, we will find our machines do not have an emotional agenda like our human companions. I would say we will welcome a place in our lives that is emotionally stable, because so many other parts of our lives are so emotionally complex."

The emotional connections between humans and machines is an established area of study in HRI research, says Laurel Riek, assistant professor of Computer Science and Engineering with the University of Notre Dame.

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'There's a general human drive toward reciprocity," Riek says. "When another person does us a favor or is kind to us, we usually feel the need to reciprocate. In some circumstances, these feelings can happen with machines. People name and dress up their Roombas, soldiers will hold funerals for EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] robots destroyed by bombs."

But again, the dynamics of these emotional connections can run deeper that they first appear.

"There are cultural aspects at play as well," Riek say. "In Japanese Shintoism there is a concept of inanimate objects possessing tamashii, which means a spirit. Rocks, trees, phones, robots -- all have tamashii. So this of course plays a role in the degree and feeling of reciprocity."

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Riek warns that, just like our human relationships, our relationship with companion robots or other everyday machines may change over time.

"In HRI, we talk about novelty effects and the idea of habituation," Riek says. "When a person first encounters a robot, there is an initial infatuation period, where people are very amazed with the robot and want to interact with it. But over time, these effects will wane, and people treat it no differently than their dishwasher or television."

Such habituation can actually be dangerous in certain systems.

"People are researching ways to sustain engagement and avoid habituation," Riek says. "This can be particularly important for systems like autonomous cars. You don't want people to be overly reliant on automation and become complacent, because that's more likely to lead to accidents happening."

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Seacat suggests that yet another element may be in play. We want a friendly relationship with our machines for the simple reasons that we're growing increasingly dependent on them.

"Humans rely on technology, which increases our liking of it -- and perhaps even our need to be liked by it," he says. "A great example is Siri, which is programmed to respond to you if you ask Siri whether or not it likes you.

"Mine happens to say: ‘Why, Jason, you are my BFF.'"

The household companion robot Buddy would like to be your friend.

Atlas resembles humanoid robots we know from fiction, such as The Terminator.