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Robot giving the finger, flipping the bird

Trash-talking robots still hurt human feelings

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that discouragements can be just as upsetting when spoken by a robot.

Trash talking was found to be off-putting by the study participants, even when they were fully aware that it was an aspect of the robot’s programming, according to the group of researchers.

The 40 participants played a game (‘Guards and Treasures’) with a robot – Pepper, the gentle-looking humanoid – while the robot commentated on their performance. In some cases, Pepper gave them encouragement and at other times it was critical, making comments such as, “I have to say you are a terrible player” and, “Over the course of the game your playing has become confused”.

Each participant played the game 35 times. The participants performed better at the game when encouraged, with their performance deteriorating when talked down by Pepper.

“One participant said: 'I don’t like what the robot is saying, but that’s the way it was programmed so I can’t blame it',” said Aaron Roth, who conducted the study as a Carnegie Mellon graduate student.

Professor Fei Fang, who co-authored the study, commented that their work was unusual: “This is one of the first studies of human-robot interaction in an environment where they are not cooperating.”

Fang explained that in a world in which AI is increasingly present, people must be wary of machines working against their best interests: “We can expect home assistants to be cooperative, but in situations such as online shopping, they may not have the same goals as we do.”

According to the researchers, while it is well established that human performance is affected by comments from other people, this study demonstrates that humans are also sensitive to comments from machines. They suggest that this could have implications for automated learning, mental health treatments and the use of social robots as companions.

They suggest that future studies could expand on this by focusing on non-verbal communication between robots and humans and how different types of robots (such as humanoid vs. non-humanoid) may trigger different responses in humans.

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