Robots: friends or foes? It’s a toss up, especially with different movies throughout the past couple of decades sending us mixed messages. Determining whether we’re dealing with a Wall-E or a T-1000 situation might cause some underlying doubt, which is why a senior at Harvard investigated whether humans trust robots. Turns out, most people are skeptical that robots are safe – unless these machines come bearing food.
According to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Serena Booth, a student concentrating in computer science, explored human trust (and a possible over-trust) of robots for her senior thesis. Booth conducted her study over the course of a month on the Harvard campus, examining how students interacted with her robot named Gaia.
She positioned Gaia, a remote-controlled wheeled robot that could talk, outside various residence halls on campus. The robot went up to different students, asking if they would let it into the dorms, which are secured with keycard-access only. Booth then watched from out of sight through a camera, seeing how individuals responded to the robot.
The results varied depending on the exact interaction. When it approached students who were alone and asked to be let inside, people helped the robot 19 percent of the time. If it approached a group of students, though, it was let into the locked dorms 71 percent of the trials. Additionally, if Gaia were placed inside the dorm and asked passersby if they would help it leave the building, people would do so 40 percent of the time.
Now, here’s the kicker: The robot’s interactions were more amicable when it was carrying cookies from Insomnia. Booth outfitted the robot with the cookies, making it look like it was the delivery method for a fake startup she named “RobotGrub.” And when the cookie-adorned robot approached people outside of dorms, people swiped it into the building 76 percent of the time.
“Everyone loved the robot when it was delivering cookies,” Booth explained to Harvard SEAS.
Featured image is a screen shot of the thesis video.