You, Robot: Why We Tend to Believe Robots Have Their Own Will

If robots are going to be a bigger part of our lives – and they are – one fascinating area of research is the way humans tend to interact with them. The NYTimes writes that the “secret to robots with better social skills” is “exploiting human nature.” My favorite paragraphs:

“Provided with the right behavioral cues, humans will form relationships with just about anything — regardless of what it looks like. Even a stick can trigger our social promiscuity. In 2011, Ehud Sharlin, a computer scientist at the University of Calgary, ran an observational experiment to test this impulse to connect. His subjects sat alone in a room with a very simple “robot”: a long, balsa-wood rectangle attached to some gears, controlled by a joystick-wielding human who, hidden from view, ran it through a series of predetermined movements. Sharlin wanted to find out how much agency humans would attribute to a stick.

Some subjects tried to fight the stick, or talk it out of wanting to fight them. One woman panicked, complaining that the stick wouldn’t stop pointing at her. Some tried to dance with it. The study found that a vast majority assumed the stick had its own goals and internal thought proc­esses. They described the stick as bowing in greeting, searching for hidden items, even purring like a contented cat.

When a robot moves on its own, it exploits a fundamental social instinct that all humans have: the ability to separate things into objects (like rocks and trees) and agents (like a bug or another person). Its evolutionary importance seems self-evident; typically, kids can do this by the time they’re a year old.”