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Polite Robot Overlords Will Be More Persuasive

To be nice, robot rhetoric should be less precise

3 min read
Polite Robot Overlords Will Be More Persuasive
Me Talk Pretty One Day: Experiments with Snackbot and others show that how robots communicate makes a big difference in human attitudes toward them.
Photo: Jiuguang Wang/Flickr

Baking cupcakes can be as much a matter of social interaction as it is a mechanical exercise. Never is this more true than when your kitchen partner is a robot. Their always-right, ego-deflating advice can be off-putting, reports social psychologist Sara Kiesler and her colleagues from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. But having them employ a different type of rhetoric could help soften the blow.

In one study, Kiesler’s former student Cristen Torrey, now at Adobe, observed how expert bakers shared advice with less-experienced volunteers. She recorded the interactions and extracted a few different approaches the experts used. For instance, “likable people equivocate when they are giving help,” Kiesler says. That is, they say things such as “Maybe you can try X” rather than simply “Do X.” They also soften their advice with extraneous words such as “Well, so, you can try X.”

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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