Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY IN SIMANAITISSAYS, we encountered variations of robot design: C3-PO’s plated mechanicals are nonetheless humanlike. R2-D2’s mechanical torso, arms, and legs give him some humanoid cred. HAL 9000’s impersonal red-eye image is pure machine. Today in Part 2, British researchers share what they learned about human preferences for robotic appearances.

An Academic View. British researchers Debora Zanatto et al have explored this matter in “Investigating Cooperation with Robotic Peers,” in PLOS ONE 14.e0225028 (2019).

PLOS ONE is a peer-reviewed open-access journal published by Public Library of Science since 2006.

The study was multidisciplinary: Zanatto and colleague Massimiliano Patacchiola are at the University of Plymouth’s School of Computing, Electronics, and Mathematics; Jeremy Goslin is at the university’s School of Psychology; and Angelo Cangelosi is at the University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science.

“Are we more cooperative,” the researchers asked, “with robots that behave in a human-like manner… or with more machine-like robots whose lack of cooperation could be ascribed to fixed programming?”

“Both,” the researchers said. It depends on the setting.

Good Banker/Bad Banker. The researchers set up an experiment with participants engaged in a cooperative investment game with a robotic confederate. For half the participants, the robot “behaved in anthropomorphic behavior, … simulating joint-attention and speaking to the participants. The remaining participants interacted with a robot confederate that was both static and mute.” What’s more, for some, the robot was programmed to agree with human decisions; for others, the robot forced the participants to do the compromising.

Good banker, bad banker; a friendly advisor, a pure ATM.

Image from “Investigating Cooperation with Robotic Peers.”

Another nuance modified the investment game: Some successive scripts returned a benign 50 to 80 percent of the invested amounts; others returned only 0 to 30 percent.

In its Other Journals section, Science, December 20, 2019, summarized the results: In money-making settings, the machinelike robot banker elicited more human cooperation. When investments went sour, humans preferred the more anthropomorphic robot. Science concluded, “The authors speculate that in a more hostile environment, people draw more on social attributes to develop cooperation.”

When the going gets tough, first seek out C-3 PO, then R2-D2. Enjoy HAL’s company in the good times. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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