Industry News

Workplace Technology (A Special Report) --- Why More People Should Watch R2-D2

Alina Dizik | Monday, March 13, 2017

The Wall Street Journal

How can people learn to work better with robots? First, have them watch robots on the silver screen.

That's the finding of a recent study that had 56 undergraduate students rate their feelings toward humanlike service robots. Half of the group watched the science-fiction movie "Robot and Frank," which involved a robot, and the other half watched "Safety Not Guaranteed," a sci-fi romantic comedy that didn't involve robots, before they made their decision.

The result: Those who viewed the movie with the robot were more likely to say that they would buy humanoid robots that assist the elderly. The researchers chose helper robots because they are becoming a common way to assist seniors and people with disabilities, but the same results could easily apply to the workplace, says Martina Mara, head of the robopsychology research division at Ars Electronica Futurelab, a multidisciplinary research center in Linz, Austria, and one of four researchers of the study.

So-called humanoid robots are especially prone to unsettling people. But people are having more contact with the machines as they come into broader use.

Part of the reason for the different results among the survey takers is that those who watched the movie that included the robot were better able to connect to the technology on an emotional level and draw connections to their personal lives, says Dr. Mara.

"We tend to think that our opinions and behaviors are based on rational fact-based arguments, but we are influenced much more by the stories we read and receive," Dr. Mara says. "Stories can generate meaning for unknown things."

(The survey takers were recruited through their beginner-level social-science courses, but researchers didn't analyze the group's previous exposure to science fiction.)

The study -- which was accepted into the journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts -- focused on robots, but the researchers say that creating a narrative around a complex topic can apply more broadly.

Using narratives may be an effective tool to help build acceptance of other emerging technologies, "where there's a lot of skepticism and fears," Dr. Mara says.

For example, the finding on robots may pave the way for using positive stories to help people embrace self-driving cars or autonomous delivery drones, or any number of other complicated topics. "If you present facts narratively, it's much more persuasive," Dr. Mara says.

The study shows that people's reaction can be tempered in part by watching robots on-screen, but there are broader cultural factors at work, too.

How robots are cast in popular culture can influence perception, according to Dr. Mara's previous research. "The connection between science fiction and real-world development is more influential than we think," says Dr. Mara.

In Japan, robots generally appear in a positive light and many "grew up with super-friendly robot characters," while robots in North America and across much of Europe are often cast as dangerous, Dr. Mara says.

The difference in these narratives can be seen in each region's approach to their robotic technology, which in Japan is more accepting. "In Japan, you don't have apocalyptic robots fighting against humankind that often," she says.

This article was licensed through Dow Jones Direct.


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