One Possible Empathic Bot Future

I was recently asked by a colleague if I thought the current very aggressive push by the Chinese to become dominant in areas of technology through huge cash investments was going to pay off.  My answer was as follows, but it is also a personal analysis of the current state of research (based on existing technology) of empathic-social robot design.

No, I don’t see China as becoming a dominant force in this area.  The main reason being that despite the money being thrown around, Chinese investment climate has become so dominated by Chinese Communist Party paranoia [and their version of political correctness] that I can’t see it expanding–it’s getting pretty scary to work in China right now.  Within China, (the other side of the Great Firewall), you have only limited access to the intellectual discussions going on in the rest of the world.  A recent interview in Science by academics recently hired in China noted that they use “work-arounds” to website links that are grey zone–not approved but not shut down yet, but this changes daily as the central and regional governments tighten control.

Our work here (at CUH) suggests that a human-based bot has limited application, only as a tutor (sorry Sophia).  While tremendously impressive from a technological and design standpoint, it is becoming more clear from the research that people won’t emotionally bond with it–the key is the development of a parasocial bond.  Without that emotional-cognitive link they quickly loose interest (Wiki has a good article on parasocial).

The emotional bond-link turns out to be key–everything else hinges on that.  If you have that bond, you not only have a high comfort level interacting with the bot, but also are much more liable to take it’s suggestions or recommendations to heart, and follow through on them.  If you want an image, think of a bot version of a comfort animal–if you would a more sophisticated version of the Hasbro/Sega cat.  It not only is comforting, but supportive, providing companionship.

When you combine a cute zoomorphic “cuddly-cute” bot, designed to be carried around, that can interact with you in customized fashion 24/7–that’s the future.  This allows the emotional support people crave in our socially isolating world, but it also has practical utility in that would be designed with Alexa-type functionality.  In this view, Hanson’s Einstein direction works for specialized areas, such as a tutorial bot, but that’s going to be a small (and shrinking) market when (not if) more emotionally engaging bots hit the stage.