04 August 2018

Ordinary Robots

Having encountered a succession of incisive studies such as Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Stefan Kühl's Ordinary Organizations: Why Normal Men Carried Out the Holocaust (Polity Press, 2016) I'm a bit underwhelmed by some of the enthusiasm with which uncritical readers are greeting 'Do a robot’s social skills and its objection discourage interactants from switching the robot off?' by Aike C Horstmann, Nikolai Bock, Eva Linhuber, Jessica M Szczuka, Carolin Straßmann and Nicole C Krämer in 2018 PLOS One.

The authors comment 
Building on the notion that people respond to media as if they were real, switching off a robot which exhibits lifelike behavior implies an interesting situation. In an experimental lab study with a 2x2 between-subjects-design (N = 85), people were given the choice to switch off a robot with which they had just interacted. The style of the interaction was either social (mimicking human behavior) or functional (displaying machinelike behavior). Additionally, the robot either voiced an objection against being switched off or it remained silent. Results show that participants rather let the robot stay switched on when the robot objected. After the functional interaction, people evaluated the robot as less likeable, which in turn led to a reduced stress experience after the switching off situation. Furthermore, individuals hesitated longest when they had experienced a functional interaction in combination with an objecting robot. This unexpected result might be due to the fact that the impression people had formed based on the task-focused behavior of the robot conflicted with the emotional nature of the objection.
It is useful to remember thsat social context matters, that a hesitation is not identical with an ultimate refusal, and that humans have on occasion been quite enthusiastic about either killing other human animals themselves or delegating that 'switching off' to their peers.