Rejection hurts, even if it’s rejection from a robot.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand recently published a study that shows being rejected by a robot can make people feel down, or, in the case of one study participant, angry enough to tell the robot to “get f*cked.”
The researchers had 147 volunteers come in and play Connect 4 with “Baxter,” a “6-foot humanoid robot with a collection of integrated sensors and displays for safe interaction with humans.”
When the Baxters of the world aren’t playing Connect 4, they can be found helping humans in factories handle repetitive tasks, and they come equipped with cameras so they don’t stumble into their flesh-and-blood partners. This particular Baxter was able to speak and had a screen for a face, programmed with facial expressions and even the ability to blink.
Participants played Connect 4 with Baxter and, after a knock on the door told the robot its time was up, Baxter said one of three things:
Option 1: “That was fun, I would like to play with you again sometime” followed by “have a good day” and “goodbye.”
Option 2: “Have a nice day,” followed by, “goodbye.”
Option 3: “That was boring! I don’t want to play with you again,” immediately followed by “goodbye.”
“The timing of the two statements was intentionally setup close together in this condition to sound like a dismissal,” the study noted.
Researchers measured the self-esteem of participants immediately after their game was up, and, while there wasn’t much difference between those who got option one and two, the self-esteem of those who got rejected took a noticeable hit.
I will be the first to tell you that, when I read that one of the participants told a robot to “get f*cked” just because the robot didn’t want to play with him again, I laughed for like five minutes. But the researchers make a pretty convincing case that — if the results of this study translate to more general human-machine interactions — this is a bit concerning.
“That was boring! I don’t want to play with you again.”
Robots in various forms are becoming more a part of our lives by the day. We type questions to bots that assist us with online purchases. We program machines to vacuum our homes. We ask cylindrical robots in our kitchens to play music for us, or set a timer. This is a trend that’s going to increase in ways non-roboticists probably can’t imagine, which means us humans are going to talk a lot more about how we interact with robots in years to come. Right now, we often use robots to perform basic tasks for us. But, as the researchers write, robots are starting “to take on more important social roles.”
“Presumably, social robots will be built to provide comfort for those most in need, i.e., the lonely and disconnected,” the authors write. “If robots inadvertently reject those who are most in need of social connection (even through social surrogacy), then a dip in self-esteem might be particularly problematic.”
Robots built in the image of people may well be able to mirror human rejection as well as acceptance, even if they were only intended for the latter.