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We all love robots, right? And yet that special relationship never seems to materialise. However intensely they begin, our relationships with robots gradually wane as the realisation dawns that it wasn’t love that brought us together, but mere infatuation. The relationship quickly and inevitably breaks down, like the morning after a Las Vegas wedding. (Japanese researchers have even measured the decline in interaction levels as humans lose interest in robot toys.)

But building a meaningful relationship with a robot may soon get easier if Nikolaos Mavridis and pals from the Interactive Robots and Media Lab at the United Arab Emirates University have anything to do with it. They say the key to building a longer, meaningful relationship with a robot is to become embedded in the same network of shared friends and together build a pool of shared memories that you can both refer to. Just like a real friend.

So the team has created the world’s first robot that does both these things–it has its own Facebook page and it can use the information it gathers from this social network in conversations with “friends”.

That seems a useful approach provided the robot can make sense of the interactions it has with humans. One key challenge will be determining the emotional state of the friends it meets and then empathising with them in an appropriate way. That’s not always easy for humans.

Nevertheless, humans are fairly predictable animals. There are numerous shortcuts and tricks that a clever programmer can exploit to give the impression of empathy and understanding.

One of the most extraordinary things about ELIZA, the world’s first chatbot created in 1966, was the number of people reported to have fallen in love with it. The program used a simple trick to give the impression of empathy and compassion: it asked general leading questions and then turned the responses into questions which it repeated back to its conversational partner. Here’s real example from the ELIZA archives:

young woman: Men are all alike.

eliza: In what way?

young woman: They’re always bugging us about something specific or other.

eliza: Can you think of a specific example?

young woman: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

eliza: Your boyfriend made you come here?

young woman: He says I’m depressed much of the time.


And so on. Perhaps the new UAE robot might continue with: “Remember when we both…”.

Sadly, the UAE team are about to make their work much harder. They’re planning to implement their programme in a humanoid robot called IbnSina (see picture), that they have developed at their lab. That will introduce an entirely new problem into any prospective relationship–the uncanny valley that various Japanese roboticists talk about. This is the feeling of revulsion that almost-but-not-quite humanoids seem to generate in humans.

And revulsion is about as big a barrier to a meaningful relationship as you can get.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0904.4836: FaceBots: Steps Towards Enhanced Long-Term Human-Robot Interaction by Utilizing and Publishing Online Social Information



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