Robots can make you do surprising things, says Alexander Reben, whose
talking bots have elicited secrets from passers-by, festival-goers and
One day in April 2010, a man in his mid-30s happened to wander into
the Media Lab at MIT in Boston and encountered a friend of mine. After
chatting for a while and being polite, my friend asked him: “What do you
do here?” The man explained that he was a runner from the Boston
marathon who was stuck in the city because of a volcanic eruption in
Iceland. Then something extraordinary happened.
The man lay down
on the floor and continued to tell my friend his troubles and his story.
He had a big trip planned in Europe starting in Munich, he said.
However, the volcano which had been spewing rocks across the Atlantic
for several weeks had, in his words, “put the kibosh” on that. He was
honest and open in a way that surprised me.
The man had been conversing with a small robot I had built, called
Boxie, equipped with a camera, and the ability to ask questions of the
people it meets. Even though I had long realised that Boxie was capable
of inspiring an emotional response, it was astounding that it could
elicit intimate details from strangers so easily.
asked myself: “Why would that man open up so readily to this relatively
simple object?” To keep perspective, here was a man, laying on the floor
in a place where he had never been before, talking to a cardboard box
with a face. While Boxie had indeed been designed to be cute, friendly,
and personable with a childlike voice, surely the man understood that it
was not capable of actually listening.
This experience made me wonder about a broader question concerning
our future with artificial intelligence: how will we interact with
social robots as they become more common? Since then, I have built
various robots capable of eliciting unexpected responses, and sent them
out to meet people – everybody from passers-by to astronauts. And what I
have found so far suggests that artificial beings will have the
capacity to influence our behaviour in ways we don’t yet realise.
a few years after Boxie, I worked on distilling the aspects of the
robot which made people want to talk to and open up to it. These
included making it smaller and cuter, using a child voice and improving
the questions and interaction. Like Boxie, each bot also had a camera
inside its head to film people’s answers.
I partnered up with filmmaker and artist Brent Hoff, and sent the robots, which we called BlabDroids,
out to parks, public spaces and film festivals internationally, such as
IDFA and Tribeca, to interview people in different places and cultures.
The idea was to create the first documentary filmed by robots, and over
the past few years, they have visited the people of the USA, the
Netherlands, China, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, the UK and others.