Writing on io9, Esther Inglis-Arkill asks what it would take to make robots lovable. The answer she came up with is not to make the robots realistic or lifelike, but rather to make them “cute”
A couple of the examples she uses include “Boxie”, an experiment of the MIT media lab shown in the video above, and Paro, a robotic baby seal being used to successfully treat Alzheimer’s patients.
The difference between Paro and a real pet isn’t just that a real pet may inadvertently hurt its owner. The difference is no one cares if Paro “dies” or is neglected. The difference between a tamagotchi and a cat is, when the tamagotchi dies, people shrug it off and the game gives them another, while even the most hard-up cat shelters will stop giving out cats eventually (don’t ask me how I know). Boxie might guilt you into an interview, but you know that at any time you can easily walk away. Actual, real girlfriends and actual, real babies, demand more time and attention than the most realistic doll in the world. And ELIZA’s biggest asset, even at the height of her appeal, has always been that she is “low-cost.” People don’t just love robots because they’re lifelike, and so can provide and receive affection. People love them because they’re not alive, and deserve no particular care.
The trick, then, isn’t exactly simulating reality to get people to fall in love. People are able to attach themselves to anything. It’s allowing people to experience enough of the pleasures of love – aesthetic appeal, emotional support, and physical comfort – while letting them know that they aren’t on the hook for any responsibility. That will get people willing to fall in love mighty fast.
Do you really love something that you have no responsibility to? I will leave that question for philosophers smarter than me. The key question for me is how much cuteness we can actually take. As they point out in the video, people either loved or hated the robot. While Boxie might be reasonably successful as something new at MIT, I have trouble imagining him surviving for long in the New York Subway.
Sometimes cute is enjoyable, sometimes annoying. As you create interfaces, keep in mind that the “right” interface depends on the purpose of what you are building, and what the user really needs.