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Programmed to feel: are we ready for human/robot relationships?

5g robot
Michael Björn 

Head of Research Agenda and Quality at Consumer & IndustryLab

Category, topic & hashtags

Do you love machines or do you hate them?
Have you answered the question? OK, I am now reading your mind and I can tell you that your answer is... quite astonishing!

Let's suppose that you hate machines. You wouldn't be alone.

As it happens, physical abuse of robots is getting to be a real problem. Not only are people beating up robots with their bare hands, they are using baseball bats and other weapons on them. Some even throw tarps over them so that they can no longer move around.

And then we have the verbal abuse. A lot of people report getting satisfaction from yelling at their Alexa and other virtual assistants. These poor robots don't know how to yell back (yet), and it seems their helplessness seems to bring out the worst behavior in some people...

And did you know that it is mostly humanoid robots that are attacked? A bit disturbing, if you ask me.

Or maybe you love machines? In that, you would be in good company too. There is already a long history of people marrying robots, videogame characters, and holograms.

Most recently, Akihiko Kondo tied the knot with is beloved VR character. And if you search for "cute robot" on YouTube, you will find lots and lots of videos featuring a large range of cuddly little robots such as Anki's Vector and Groove X's Lovot. Some videos get millions of views.

But what is perhaps more revealing about your answer is the fact that you could answer the question at all. How can you express feelings to an inanimate thing? And how can your feelings be so very strong?!

Around fifteen years ago, we had a Sony Aibo robot dog in the office where I worked. It was supposed to have AI and behave like a real dog, play catch and wag its tail when you petted it. It would also go and "eat" when it was "hungry" – that is, automatically go and charge its batteries.

In reality, it was pretty stupid and would get lost before the batteries ran out. I would find it lying belly up on the floor somewhere almost every morning. In the end, I gave up and put it on a shelf. But then the unexpected happened. People in the office got really upset. They honestly thought I had killed their pet.

My point is, that although we humans have always found it easy to anthropomorphize things around us - and I guess that is one reason why pets are so popular in the first place - having feelings for inanimate objects will increase dramatically when consumer products come with AI functionality. When they start acting like living things, a lot of people will have no problem treating them like living things.

Not only are there people who bury their Aibo dogs in real ceremonies, we are beginning to treat smart speakers like family members, just like we do with pets.

Not only will virtual assistant devices become bona fide family members, they will also influence a lot of the decision making in the family. When I walk the dog in the morning, it is he who decides the route, not I. Similarly, when we discuss what's for dinner tonight, it might be Google Assistant who takes the decision.

But just like two dogs can get into a fight, so will virtual assistants. Just like the dogs, they have some behaviors that we can't influence and objectives that are beyond our control.

Maybe with two assistants by the same brand, there might be some kind of hive mind effect that ensures sameness and avoids conflict. But judging by the different smartphone preferences at least in my family, it is only logical that we will also want different virtual assistants. Add to that maybe a shared Alexa and we will certainly have different virtual assistant brands involved in our decision making in the near future.

But unlike dogs, who have instinct hardwired into their DNA, the virtual assistants' objectives are controlled by their makers. Given that they are likely to be competitors, the likelihood that their objectives are the same I would judge to be next to zero. So, the family scene is really set for more infighting than ever.

That is why we highlighted "Smart Quarrels" as one of our key consumer trends for 2019. In this trend we point to 66% believing that these types of conflicts will be common in only three years.

Something you might want to consider before inviting another member into your family, alive, or dead. Particularly dead!

Find out more insights from Ericsson ConsumerLab's 10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2019 here, and let us know how you think virtual assistants quarreling in your household will impact the overall automation of society.

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