Alexa, are people becoming more comfortable speaking to robots?

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1 in 10 UK households now own a robot such as a Google Home or Amazon Echo; and if you own an iPhone, Siri is your own personal pocket robot, poised to tell you directions or chat to you about the weather at any given moment. While the rise of robots is seemingly interminable, the question stands: are people getting more comfortable with speaking to robots or, like with ads at the start of YouTube videos, are we just begrudgingly accepting their existence?

One of the most striking differences between our mental image of robots versus actual robots that we interact with is that they look nothing alike. Modern robots are not gigantic mechanical structures pacing the earth, attacking humanity with alarming efficiency. Instead, they’re attractively designed products that don’t look out of place in any home. This means they have slipped into our everyday lives with very little friction - most of us don’t even consciously realise we’re talking to a robot when we’re asking Alexa for a recipe or telling Siri to remind us to wish somebody a happy birthday. Because they’ve seamlessly slipped into modern living, starting with iPhones and now spreading to smart TVs, smart homes and chatbots, people have been able to gradually accept them, resulting in little resistance.

There is now much evidence that people are happy to talk to robots; In fact - more than happy. Some studies show that people actually prefer talking to robots because it eliminates the possibility of human judgment. In a study conducted by Gale Lucas, who has been studying human-robot trust for years, she asked people the question ‘Do you have any regrets?’. The variable: respondents were told that they were either speaking to a robot or a human. In almost every case, those told that they were talking to a robot revealed more information. “People who talk to a virtual agent know that their data is anonymous and safe and that no one is going to judge them”. When applied to CX, feedback studies rely on consumers being open, so using robots to solicit honest feedback makes for a strong use-case.

However, this is not to say that robots have been accepted with open arms. We’ve all felt the familiar dread of needing to call somewhere - a bank for example - resulting in a frustrating conversation with a machine that can’t seem to understand our regional accent. Similarly, we’ve all been affected by the seemingly merciless rise of poorly maintained chat-bots on sites. If a robot is poorly built, or poorly used, is depersonalises our experience with that company. If we think a brand is nothing more than a facade, backed by AI and algorithms, our relationship to that brand is damaged. Similarly, if a robot is pointless or just really bad at doing its job, people are quick to give up and take to social media to vent.

In sci-fi films, a clear picture is painted of robots - one of mechanical, space-age creatures marching around earth causing destruction with futuristic weaponry. But in actual fact, the rise of robots has been much more subtle than that. They’ve slowly seeped into all aspects of life - from the workplace using robots to do jobs humans used to, to household robots helping you run a tight domestic ship. More important than the user accepting robots themselves is the ability of the robot to do the job it has been tasked with. People do not want to work with ill-equipped, ill-informed humans - the same goes for robots.