THINKING ON A BICYCLE: Having a relationship with a robot

By Jonte Goldwater

Jeff is now part of our family despite being a vacuum cleaner. He is a funny little guy who has his quirks and idiosyncrasies. In his busy little journey around the house, he often gets stuck or eats something he shouldn’t have which has him reaching out to us with a call for help.

When we first got him, it seemed natural to name him and it was also natural to make him a boy. Our kids made sure of that.

What we did not expect, however, was how he would become quite so child-like in our eyes. We had initially thought he would be more of a peer. A serious, helpful and trusted helper-outer.

Isn’t it strange how we humans can breathe life and personality into objects just by simply naming them. Why do we need to do that?

They are alive in our heads and we are ok with that. Somehow we are able to ‘make-believe’ in order to form some sort of relationship with that object so we can place trust in whatever function or role that we need them to perform.

There is a real spectrum of relationship that we are willing to exist along when it comes to robots depending on the role that they play and the way that they are presented to us.

This begs the question of what a relationship is. Traditionally relationships are built on a few key ingredients such as trust, respect, communication and empathy. These are all the traits of a dynamic, reactive, living thing with consciousness.

And then the question of consciousness leads to a much larger idea around decisions driven on ideals and then beyond that the ‘spirit’. A few years back I read a book on Theosophy by Rudolf Steiner which is basically an attempt to attach scientific methods to prove the progression from inanimate objects right through to the existence of the soul and the spiritual world. Needless to say, I got a bit lost on the scientific integrity at the later part of that journey, but what I did find interesting is how a consciousness combined with empathy was the start of something becoming truly alive and therefore allowing us to form a relationship on a more emotional level.

"...what I did find interesting is how a consciousness combined with empathy was the start of something becoming truly alive and therefore allowing us to form a relationship on a more emotional level."

Humans are a curious bunch and we do odd things like allowing vacuum cleaners to be part of the family, but we are also incredibly attuned to when something is off, and when the tone of ‘life’ is not right.

Recently we did some work for the creation of a chatbot and we discovered that unpicking and understanding a few key components helped us navigate the ‘off’ scale along that relationship spectrum.

The first was the level of friction or noise. How much did we want this thing to stand up and take a centre stage in the mediums that it existed in? This was important because of the functional role that we needed this bot to perform.

The next factor we considered was the tone of communication. How comfortable, colloquial, funny, intuitive and personable did we want this entity to be? What was the right way that this thing should connect with you? What did you need from it?

After this, we needed to clarify the purpose of the bot. What was it here to do and therefore what was the suitable type of relationship we should have with it? Did we need this thing to be at an arms-length or did we want this to be a good friend?

Finally, we needed to consider the context of the industry that we are operating in and the brand personality for the company that it was reflecting. This was important for authenticity.

These clues all helped to set us up to determine the naming construct, the character type, tone of voice, design and animation.

You can see where this world can go and the way that Siri and Alexa have set down an abstract construct without form means that in time they can become ‘conscious’ entities. I can see these being ready for insertion into any vessel that creates meaning, connection and relationship for you to truly ‘believe’.

However, in advance of that, I am happy with Jeff, or Jeffery, which we sometimes call him when he has been particularly naughty.