Linksys and the gaming geeks

Polly wants a cracker

There’s an interesting story in the New Scientist about how people think their computer is more “lifelike” if it parrots back the user’s voice. A bunch of researchers did some experiments to test this effect:

To see if computers could establish such a rapport with their users, Suzuki asked some volunteers to work on screen with an animated character that they were told had the speech skills of a one-year-old child. Their task was to make toy animals out of building blocks on the screen, and at the same time teach the character the names of the toys being built.

In response, the character hummed back sounds that mimicked characteristic features, such as the rhythm, intonation, loudness and pitch of the user’s voice. The extent of the mimicry varied.

The users then rated the character in areas such as cooperation, learning ability, task-achievement, comfort, friendliness, and sympathy. The animated character scored highest on all these factors when its voice was mimicking about 80 per cent of the user’s voice.

Sherry Turkle has been noticing this effect for the last few years, while investigating people’s relationships with their robotic pets. As she points out, people form the deepest emotional attachments to robots that ask to be nurtured. The earliest example of that was the Tamagotchi — a toy that would wither away and die if you didn’t take care of it (pictured above). These days, the hottest robots are one that similarly require emotional attention, like Sony’s Aibo. In this voice-parroting research, the scientists are discovering that people connect most powerfully to computers that seem to be tiny children, learning to speak by aping our voices.

Which is, when you think about it, astoundingly weird. Weren’t robots supposed to be these brilliant, all-knowing things made out of brushed aluminum? Weren’t they supposed to be our manservants, diligently relieving us of all need for manual labor? Weren’t they supposed to hang around my apartment and bring me a beer?

So now the era of mechanical life finally arrives and all we’ve got is a bunch of robots that, like, whine.

Man, if I’d known the future was going to be this crappy, I’d have stayed in the past.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for the New Scientist link!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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