// what do you think?


Social Robots: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us.

There was a great piece this morning by John Hagel reviewing Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, and combining that with several other things I’ve read lately, the post got me thinking about Social Robots.

I have not read Sherry’s book but I have already ordered it based on John’s recommendation so I will be forced to quote and paraphrase what John has already quoted and paraphrased so I make no claim to any accuracy to what Sherry was stating but will, <sarcasm>like all good bloggers, repurpose out of context quotes to fit my own need</sarcasm>.

So what are Social Robots? That question will be the objective of this post but I doubt I will come to a satisfactory definition but I do plan to challenge what notions you may already be forming. However I will be limiting my discussion, as Sherry does in her book, to the online equivalent of robots.

“The narrative of Alone Together describes an arc: we expect more from technology and less from each other. .”

“With sociable robots, we imagine objects as people.  Online, we invent ways of being with people that turn them into something close to objects.”

We have a love/hate relationship with robots. We love them but we have a huge societal fear (and fear drives hate) of what they are capable.

Dr. Patrick Lin , the Director of Ethics and the Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University was asked in an interview on The Next Web why we were so afraid of robots and depicted them as the objects of fear in so much sci-fi.

I think that much of this is a reflection about ourselves, Homo sapiens. In important ways, robots are a replacement for humans: they can do many of our jobs better – usually described as the three D’s: dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs – and they can do some jobs that we can’t do at all, such as explore deep underwater or Martian environments. Thus, our fascination with bad robots is really that we are worried about the mischief we bring unto ourselves through technology, directly or by proxy.

While the interview was focused on real robots I think his response fits perfectly with the concept of Social Robots. When we think about Social Robots in terms of “online ‘bots” we usually think of search engine “spiders” or programs used for spamming blogs, comments and Twitter.

But bots are just automated programs designed to run out any number of tasks. Take, for example, the SocialBots competition.

Teams will program bots to control user accounts on Twitter in a brutal, two-week, all-out, no-holds-barred battle to influence an unsuspecting cluster of 500 online users to do their bidding. Points will be given for connections created by the bots and the social behaviors they are able to elicit among the targets. All code to be made open-source under the MIT license.

It’s blood sport for internet social science/network analysis nerds. Winner to be rewarded $500, unending fame and glory, and THE SOCIALBOTS CUP.

Sounds potentially devious and horrible? @WebEcology, which is running the competition has a stated mission on their Twitter profile that reads: “Better Understanding Social Networks and Internet Culture.” That’s not all bad. In fact I had the pleasure of hearing @TimHwang (the man behind all of this) speak at Gnomedex last year and was, by far, the most impressed with his presentation. He has regularly conducted what he calls “Social Wargames” as a way of learning how influence effects societies and to better allow those societies to protect against influence. You can see Web Ecology’s research here.

Why is Facebook considered by most of the industry to be worth $500 Billion? Because of all the personal data it has on us. With the release of all this social data on the Web companies are tripping over themselves to create algorithms to better understand what it is that you want. How can they market to you better and build better services for you? A lot of their intentions are good. A lot of their intentions are manipulative.

Thinking back to Sherry’s point about how we start to view people as objects and objects as people online, when your only interaction is text it becomes much harder to determine what’s a real person and what’s a bot. Right now that idea scares us but is it that hard to imagine scenarios where we would actually prefer to interact with a Social Robot, that has been algorithmically optimized to know our preferences than a real person who has their own motivations for interacting with you?

But yet we are still afraid. What will marketers do with all that data?

Think about the challenges of crowdsourcing and the Man vs Machine debate. Think about Amazon’s mechanical turk and how it’s being used for spam. You don’t even need bots, you can use real people. Which raise my point of this long winded blog post:

Who are the Social Robots? The programs people are writing or are we ourselves becoming Social Robots?

We have met the enemy… and he is us.

That line that many of us have heard before came from a poster that was created for the first Earth Day by Walter Kelly, the creator of the Pogo comic. Let me quote the last two paragraphs of the forward to a collection of works where he addresses this famous line:

Specializations and markings of individuals everywhere abound in such profusion that major idiosyncracies can be properly ascribed to the mass*. Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle.

There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://topsy.com/www.newcommbiz.com/social-robots-we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us/?utm_source=pingback&utm_campaign=L2 Tweets that mention Social Robots: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us. | New Comm Biz — Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tac Anderson, Craig M. Jamieson, Michael J Lis and others. Michael J Lis said: “@tacanderson: Social Robots: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us. http://bit.ly/fnYtgj (new post)” great one Tac [...]

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