Sometimes We Feel More Comfortable Talking To A Robot : All Tech Considered Artist Alexander Reben wants to know whether a robot could fulfill our deep need for companionship. He created a robot named BlabDroid that asks people to share their raw emotions and deep secrets.
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Sometimes We Feel More Comfortable Talking To A Robot

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Sometimes We Feel More Comfortable Talking To A Robot

Sometimes We Feel More Comfortable Talking To A Robot

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As we interact more with machines, smart speakers, self-checkout kiosks, I wonder if we'll even start to have relationships with machines. As part of her series on how artists and criminals use technology, NPR's Laura Sydell introduces us to an artist and the robot he created to be a friend.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Boxie was a robot that lived at a lab at MIT in Boston. It was made of cardboard. It was about the size of a microwave oven. And it rolled around like a toy tank. It would approach people with its big, round, black eyes wide open and ask something like this...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: I'll let you take a look around. Can you take me somewhere interesting?

ALEXANDER REBEN: OK. Let's go upstairs, the third floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Boxie's creator, Alexander Reben, is an artist. He was also working on his Ph.D. at MIT in robotics. One day, he was watching Boxie, and something big happened, something that would change the course of his work. It started with a man walking into the lab.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REBEN: I remember I saw him from a distance, laying on the carpets in the middle of the lab, talking to this robot on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've never been to Boston before - first time. It's a great little city, although I find myself stranded right now.

REBEN: He just started talking to this thing like it was another person.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because I was supposed to go to Munich today, but the volcano in Iceland kind of prevented that. So anyway, I'm just kind of stranded anyway (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: That conversation was a revelation for Reben. He built Boxie small and light to see if he could get people to move it around. Now he realized that some of the characteristics that made people want to help Boxie also seduced them into talking with the robot. It was cute. It seemed vulnerable. He teamed up with another artist and filmmaker, Brent Hoff, to see if they could design a robot that people would want to open up to. They carved a smile into its face.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRENT HOFF: It's the perfect smile. It's kind of a Mona Lisa Smile, it's open and engaging to make sure that that was as nonjudgemental and nonthreatening as possible.

SYDELL: They gave it the sweet voice of Hoff's 8-year-old son.

HOFF: There was some consideration of, like, what are the deepest, most important questions we have as people?

SYDELL: Such as...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: Who do you love most in the world? If you could give someone any gift, what would it be?

SYDELL: And it had a camera and a recorder inside to catch the answers. They called the new robot BlabDroid.

HOFF: The idea is that there's not as much judgment in a robot asking you a question as a journalist like yourself, who will come from NPR into the heartland and ask maybe a question that would be maybe answered differently. I don't know if that's true or not. I would like to find out.

SYDELL: So would I. We set up a loose experiment. I would ask people the same questions as BlabDroid. And like the robot, there wouldn't be any follow-up questions. See if you can guess whether this man, Nate Mazur, is talking to me or a robot.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: Who do you love most in the world?

SYDELL: Who do you love most in the world?

NATE MAZUR: My wife. Yeah, my ability to be with her. And that's something that's so precious to me. She makes this a better world - that is a - makes this a better world for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Here's another one.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: If you could give someone any gift, what would it be?

SYDELL: If you could give someone any gift, what would it be?

JUDITH HELFAND: I would give my mother the gift of not worrying about me before she dies. And she wants me to lose, like, a ton of weight and get really, really healthy. And she needs to see that before she dies for her to feel like I'm going to be OK when she's not here. And I wish I could give her that. And I'm not positive I can.

SYDELL: Nate Mazur (ph) had been talking to me. Judith Helfand (ph) was pouring her heart out to BlabDroid. She says she felt more open when she knew there wasn't a person listening.

HELFAND: The robot was just a means to get closer to myself at a really critical moment in my life.

SYDELL: Helfand says it's been over two years since her mother passed away. She's been struggling with her career.

HELFAND: I probably could use the robot right now. You know, meditation really isn't working for me, and I can't seem to find the courage to sit and write down what my future plans are so that I can make them really happen. But I bet I could do it if I had that little robot asking me those questions instead of me sitting by myself with my computer.

SYDELL: I asked Sherry Turkle, a professor of Science and Technology at MIT, to listen to the responses. She couldn't tell whether people were talking to BlabDroid or me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: BlabDroid with its sweet voice, Mona Lisa smile, and probing questions...

SHERRY TURKLE: It's pushing in us a kind of Darwinian button.

SYDELL: Turkle has been studying human-machine relationships for decades. She says it really doesn't take much to get humans to open up to a robot.

TURKLE: That's what I learned - that we are kind of cheap dates.

SYDELL: Turkle says robots don't even have to be cute. In her research, she found a child that vented to Apple's Siri on an iPhone.

TURKLE: And talk about her anger towards her sister and towards her parents in ways that she didn't feel she was free to do to her parents because in person, she tries to always play the good daughter.

SYDELL: Turkle says over time, the child wasn't happy.

TURKLE: It was almost a feeling of abandonment, like is this it? There's no place they can go after they get the confession. They really can't offer the nurturance and the care, the conversation and the empathy. And the robot cannot do that because the robot has not had a life.

SYDELL: The science fiction author William Gibson once said, the future is already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet. In Japan, robots are being used to care for the elderly. Men are having relationships with virtual women who exist only in a portable video game, even taking them out on dates. An American company has created robot bartenders. Perhaps they will listen to our problems. Reben doesn't think it's all bad. A cute robot might do a better job at getting people to answer questions honestly.

REBEN: Asking about embarrassing symptoms before you see a person doctor, explaining those embarrassing symptoms to a machine or a computer or a robot or whatever. People tend to be more honest because they don't feel embarrassed telling that to something that's not human.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Robots will become more human and more social. What Reben hopes is that his art will provoke us to think about how we want to use their power. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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