Telling Lies to Robots

Some people say that a lie is a lie no matter what, and that it’s never OK to be dishonest. Others distinguish between different types of lies. They believe that it’s sometimes OK to tell trivial lies in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. After all, if a dim friend asks you if he is smart, you don’t want to say, “No, you’re one of the least intelligent people I know”.

But there’s no need to start telling lies to robots, right? While some people will tell white lies to keep from hurting a friend’s feelings, that doesn’t apply to robots. It’s a machine, so you don’t have to feel guilty about hurting its feelings.

However, research suggests that if a robot shows enough human characteristics, people will lie to that robot to keep from hurting the robot’s feelings.

The study

Researchers at University of Bristol and University College London designed a robot with two large eyes and a mouth capable of expressing happiness, sadness, or no emotion at all. They named the robot Bert.

Bert was set up to be either efficient and non-expressive or error-prone and emotionally expressive. The researchers set Bert to help humans cook omelettes and monitored how people treated the robot.

In one set of tests, Bert was an amazing sous-chef  who carried out tasks perfectly and without emotion – a consummate professional. In another set of tests, Bert would make slight mistakes and try to correct them, still without expressing emotion. In a third set of tests, Bert communicated with humans, asking questions, fumbling through the process, and making sad expressions and apologies when it dropped the eggs.

The study found that people were more likely to forgive a robot that showed emotions, and one of the participants lied to Bert to keep the robot from getting upset. Surprisingly, 15 out of the 21 participants said that the third version of Bert was their favorite, even though he was an incompetent chef.

Relating to robots

We know that robots don’t get happy or sad, yet people will go so far as telling lies to robots to keep from hurting feelings that we know they don’t have. People find it easier to relate to robots that show human-like characteristics than robots that are, well, just machines.