Computers Are Human Too?

Stanford Professor Clifford Nass has been studying computer-human interactions for years. He and fellow researchers noticed that even technically sophisticated people tend to react to computers as if they were human. For instance, when the car manufacturer BMW installed advanced navigational computers in some of its cars a decade ago, it had to recall them. Not because the devices didn’t work well, they worked just fine. But the company received too many irate phone calls from German males who insisted they would never take directions from a woman. It didn’t matter that it was just a woman’s voice, that the computer was gender-neutral. The device/voice had to be changed.

The researchers also noted that if people used a teaching program on a computer for a half an hour and then were asked to asked to evaluate the program, the results depended on what computer they used. If it was the one they used for the instruction the marks were more favorable than if they did the evaluation on another machine. It was almost as if the evaluators didn’t want to hurt the computer’s feelings.

So developers have been trying to make computers seem more friendly and trustworthy by building on this human tendency. Nass believes in some cases they’ve done a remarkable job. In a recent Wall Street Journal article he writes,

Indeed, we may be reaching the point which our technologies are actually more socially effective that our colleagues…. It would be ironic if in the future, people will be turning to computers to learn how to win friends and influence people rather than the other way around.

I’m keeping an open mind on this. I know plenty of humans who aren’t that socially adept, but I haven’t yet interacted with computers who are that sophisticated. When I encounter a phone menu I appreciate friendly computer voices, but I usually try to get to a real person as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean I doubt Nass’s word. Eventually I plan to read more about his work in his upcoming book, The Man Who Lied to His Laptop.

What do you think?

Thanks to bikehikebabe, Rummuser and Cathy for commenting on last week’s post.
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18 Responses to Computers Are Human Too?

  1. bikehikebabe says:

    If computers can have Artificial Intelligence & solve problems without human error, then I think they can put it all together & be more socially inclined than a human.

  2. Mike says:

    Even with AI and other advancements, computers will not be “human” even if they develop true awareness, including awareness of “self” and of “values.”
    Mike´s last blog post ..Thousands evacuated when “inactive” volcano erupts

  3. bikehikebabe says:

    Thank God they’ll be better than human, with all the stupid mistakes humans make.

  4. Looney says:

    I remember reading a story years ago about when the telephone first became widely used. Someone was observing an elderly lady having a phone conversation in which all the usual body gestures of a face-to-face conversation were employed.

    As for AI, I usually note that it is an acronym for many things other than Artificial Intelligence, such as Artificial Irritability, Arcane Interaction and the like. Now if only I could figure out how to subliminally introduce friendly features into my software … a bit of Oprah …

  5. Jean says:

    bikehikebabe and Mike,
    I’m more intrigued by robots that act as supportive friends or even pets like Paro, an artificial seal pup that facilitates communication and lifts the spirits of people in nursing homes. It can be effective even when the person knows it isn’t real, as this New York Times article says:

    “I know that this isn’t an animal,” said Pierre Carter, 62, smiling down at the robot he calls Fluffy. “But it brings out natural feelings.”

    Then Dr. Marette acknowledged an observation she had made of her own behavior: “It’s hard to walk down the hall with it cooing and making noises and not start talking to it. I had a car that I used to talk to that was a lot less responsive.”

    That effect, computer science experts said, stems from what appears to be a basic human reflex to treat objects that respond to their surroundings as alive, even when we know perfectly well that they are not. ”

    The article also mentions other devices, e.g. ones that encourage people to lose weight or even to resist drug cravings.

    In fact one advice for people in customer service is to smile when you talk. It makes you sound friendlier and builds rapport.

  6. Evan says:

    What Computers Can’t Do and the follow-up What Computers Still Can’t Do are worth reading.

    For rule governed things computers are fine – for non-rule governed ‘real life’ stuff computers can’t cut it.

    A computer can have one routine (or millions) but when something unpredictable happens they are at a loss. It is the complexity of the everyday that is the challenge for computers and the imprecise pattern matching of humans where people excel.
    Evan´s last blog post ..Time to Move

  7. Jean says:

    I’m afraid I agree with bikehikebabe, humans usually don’t do very well handling new situations either. 🙂

  8. Evan says:

    The debate I think is not about what intelligence means in rule governed systems but what ‘artificial’ means.
    Evan´s last blog post ..Time to Move

  9. Rummuser says:

    One more puncture into my son’s inheritance! Shall however wait till the Indian edition comes out.
    Rummuser´s last blog post ..Sanyas!

  10. Ursula says:

    I shall think of more variants on Looney’s AIs; several not so flattering ones come to mind.

    As to computers being human: As long as they work I treat them like a piece of machinery. As soon as they stall, become obnoxious and generally don’t perform, as expected and guaranteed, I treat them like the utter disappointment they sometimes prove to be. Though pathetically grateful and forgiving once they function again.

    My grandparents don’t know how good they had it just living through the second world war and its aftermath. At least I know what to do with potato peel if nothing else. My nerves are in tatters.


  11. Jean says:


    The debate I think is not about what intelligence means in rule governed systems…

    I assume we both agree that the Chilean mine owner was not very smart in violating the rule that air shafts had to have escape ladders. The miners tried that first but the ladder wasn’t there. Score another one for bikehikebabe.

    I’m in no hurry. I did buy one of his earlier books, The Media Equation. I bought it used for a reasonable price, otherwise I would have requested it from Interlibrary Loan. I don’t think it’s a book I will keep forever, but I was curious.

    We don’t worry about our daughter’s inheritance. The greatest gift my mother gave me was being happy in her later years. The last thing my daughter needs is parents who act like martyrs. 😉

    The title was a joke, of course. The post isn’t about computers being human, it’s about the tendency of humans to respond to devices as if they were human. And the importance of the makers of those devices to understand social rules so the devices are user-friendly.

    This isn’t quite an example of humans treating software as human, but it’s related… some surfers are now getting freaked out by retargeting ads. They feel stalked when they look at a product on one site and ads for that product follow them around the internet. It’s all automatic, but it’s over the line. Online tracking has been around for years but it’s now going too far…it’s now coming to the attention of lawmakers. The creators of the method didn’t take social rules/human reactions into consideration.

  12. bikehikebabe says:

    Hi Ursula, Always glad to read what you have to say.

  13. tikno says:

    My oldest daughter 3.6 years, often playing educational games on my computer using a software Edu-Game. In the game there was a character that she love so much namely Bobby Bola, a character that directs the learning process in the game. When she was interacting with Bobby Bola, seems to her like actually interact with real friends. When finished playing my daughter asked me: “Daddy, whether Bobby Bola was sleeping?”. By showing the game CD I said: “Bobby Bola never sleep because he was only a man-made program.” Then my daughter replied: “Sadly he’s not real”.

    At one side, I’m glad she love Bobby Bola (although not real), so she’s motivated to learn. But on the other side I must tells her to make her aware that these character is not real.

    Gosh, she has been able to love something that is not real !
    tikno´s last blog post ..Between logic and unlogic – science and faith

  14. gaelikaa says:

    We should treat computers with thd respect they deserve, but I wouldn’t go overboard!

  15. bikehikebabe says:

    Been hearing about functions of the brain (TV Charlie Rose).

    Maybe they won’t be able to give computers EMOTIONS.

  16. Jean says:

    Why not tell her it’s not real but it’s fun to pretend?

    My guess is different people will have different definitions of going overboard.

    Of course this post and Nass’s work isn’t about turning computers into humans, it’s about giving them simple rules that make them more appealing to humans. The gist of Nass’s work seems to be it isn’t that hard.

  17. tikno says:

    How if “it’s a fun games” instead of “it’s fun to pretend?
    tikno´s last blog post ..Between logic and unlogic – science and faith

  18. Jean says:

    That would work too. 🙂

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