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A new study from University of Toronto Engineering: Social robots may be more persuasive if they project less authority

In the future, socially interactive robots could help seniors age in place or assist residents of long-term care facilities with their activities of daily living. But will people actually accept advice or instructions from a robot? A new study from University of Toronto Engineering suggests that the answer hinges on how that robot behaves.

“When robots present themselves as human-like social agents, we tend to play along with that sense of humanity and treat them much like we would a person,” says Shane Saunderson, lead author of a new paper published in Science Robotics.

“But even simple tasks, like asking someone to take their medication, have a lot of social depth to them. If we want to put robots in those situations, we need to better understand the psychology of robot-human interactions.”

Saunderson says that even in the human world, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to persuasion. But one key concept is authority, which can be further divided into two types: formal authority and real authority.

“Formal authority comes from your role: if someone is your boss, your teacher or your parent, they have a certain amount of formal authority,” he says. “Real authority has to do with the control of decisions, often for entities such as financial rewards or punishments.”

To simulate these concepts, Saunderson set up an experiment where a named Pepper was used to help 32 volunteer test subjects complete a series of simple tasks, such as memorizing and recalling items in a sequence.

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