In a social experiment with conversational robots, engineers were shocked at just how much humans opened up to the little machines.
If a stranger asked you a personal question, would you answer? Probably not. But what if that stranger was a robot? You might be surprised at how much an AI can get you to open up. In fact, social experiments have established that humans have an unexpected inclination to share their deepest secrets and innermost thoughts with robots who seem friendly – it all started with Boxie the robot.
In the Media Lab at MIT, a normal man in his mid-30s wandered in, and Boxie, a cute little child-like robot, started to chat with him. The man explained how he was a runner from the Boston marathon who was stuck in the city due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland, but extraordinarily, the man proceeded to lay on the floor and open up to Boxie about his story and his troubles. Alexander Reben, the engineer who built Boxie, wrote that the man was honest and open in a way that surprised him.
Reben wasn’t shocked that Boxie was capable of inspiring an emotional response in humans, but it did astound him that Boxie could elicit intimate details from strangers so effortlessly. He decided to further experiment and see just how much people would pour their hearts out to robots, and that’s when the BlabDroids were born.
BlabDroids were engineered to be even smaller and cuter than Boxie, with an innocent child’s voice and improved questions, responses, and interaction abilities. Reben partnered up with filmmaker Brent Hoff and sent the robots out to parks, public places, and international film festivals to meet some new friends. Reben and Hoff dreamt up the idea of producing the first documentary filmed by robots, and sent the BlabDroids around the world. They mingled with the people of the USA, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, China, Sweden, and Switzerland.
People interacted with the new robots for about 30 minutes on average, and they revealed extremely personal stories — things you wouldn’t normally discuss with a stranger. Plus, the robot told its interviewees upfront that it was recording them for a documentary, so they were fully aware of the situation, but it didn’t seem to discourage any of the flagrant honesty in their responses.
Reben shared some of the conversations the robot had in his BBC Future article:
BlabDroid: “What’s the worst thing you have ever done to someone?”
Person 1: “Not telling my dad I loved him before he died.”
Person 2: "The worst thing I ever did was, um, made it so that my mother had to drown some kittens one time and I didn't realise until after that was over that it was a very difficult thing for her to do and I've never... I've never forgiven myself for making her drown some little kittens, but we couldn't keep them and I should have come up with some other way.”
BlabDroid: “If you could tell someone not to make the same mistake you did, what mistake would that be?”
Person 1: “Having kids.”
(Let’s hope Person 1’s children never see this documentary…)
Clearly, the BlabDroids created a sense of comfort and trust between themselves and the humans, encouraging them to share personal stories of regret and hardship. Perhaps we feel more comfortable sharing our deepest secrets with a machine because we know it will pass no harsh judgment upon us in return. They enable us to talk about the things that are hardest to talk about without the complications weaved into our human relationships.
Interestingly, in another study in which Reben collaborated with Alicia Eggert in 2012, they designed a robot that had a sense of “life” — it had a kick drum to represent its pulse, and an average human lifespan of 78 years. Giving the robot a pulse and a sense of mortality seemed to compel people to see it as a living being. Some people even said that seeing the “dying” robot gave them energy to go out and take advantage of their own lives since it reminded them that life is short.
As robots continue to grow more artificially intelligent and autonomous, people might not even notice a difference between venting to a robot or another human in the future. Growing comfortable enough to share important feelings with them seems to come naturally to us. Maybe sometimes we just need someone (or something) to listen.
Check out the adorable BlabDroids in action in this sneak peak to the documentary feature.