Social Devices

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Jan 2, 2009, 4:09:48 PM1/2/09
to Design and Behaviour
I thought this post might interest the group. Cheers this New Years.

Devices As Themselves Social
by Ryan Calo, posted on January 2, 2009 - 1:02pm.

Social networks have gotten a lot of play in recent years. What about
social devices? I've been thinking about whether/how the nature of
computer interfaces is changing—specifically, becoming less passive
and more “social.”

My conversations with academics in Stanford's Department of
Communications, and the research they've guided me toward, leads me to
believe that we are once again at the edge of a shift in the way we
communicate. For a variety or reasons, PCs and other computers in
cars, mobile devices, etc., are making increased use of voice-driven,
natural language interfaces or avatars, moving computing away from the
traditional mode of passive information processing toward a more
social, "person to person" interaction.

Some quick examples. Google's VP of Search gave a recent interview at
Le Web during which she said that Google was exploring a more
conversational interface that would allow users to actually ask Google
questions out loud as though conversing with a person. Although it has
met with (comic) resistance in the past, a trail of Microsoft patents
going back ten years shows how serious the company is about developing
a social interface, complete with voice, expressions, and gestures. As
much as twenty-five percent of Microsoft's research efforts reportedly
involve artificial intelligence. Even the U.S. government has gotten
into this game: the U.S. Army’s virtual recruiter, SGT Star, responds
to questions out loud, changes moods, makes jokes, etc. According to
developer statistics, SGT Star has responded to over two million
questions since his debut in 2006.

Meanwhile, as psychology and communications scholars such as Clifford
Nass and Byron Reeves have exhaustively demonstrated (for instance, in
The Media Equation), people respond to social machines as though they
were truly human. In games of cooperation, we make and keep promises
(only) to computers that present as social agents. We donate more in
charity experiments when faced with a picture of a human-looking
robot. We refuse to take advice from robot caregivers (like Nursebot
Pearl at Carnegie Melon) unless they present as sufficiently human.
Researchers explain this largely subconscious phenomenon in one of two
ways: by citing to the fact that we evolved at a time when human-
looking things were in fact human, or by pointing to the related
insight that humans are over-attuned to other humans so as to
capitalize on our greatest evolutionary advantages of language and

The upshot is twofold: artificial agents will increasingly mediate our
communications activities, and this mediation will impact how, and
likely what, we communicate. BJ Fogg and Ian Kerr have independently
looked at the ethical ramifications of using computer agents to
persuade. I’m writing about whether privacy harms may flow from the
introduction of social agents into historically private spaces and
information transactions (such as search). Others may find yet new
angles. Be on the watch for social machines as an emerging
communications issue.


Jan 3, 2009, 5:38:47 PM1/3/09
to Design and Behaviour
Thanks for sharing your post Ryan.

An example I like (not for any cues redolent of human personality in
its interface but simply for its functionality) of a social device is
this prototype radio made for the BBC. It combines a social network
with a radio - showing you what stations your friends are listening

I was interested in your last paragraph, where you mentioned work on
the ethics of persuasive technology by BJ Fogg and Ian Kerr. I'd be
really grateful if you could point me in the direction of any
published papers, as I've been having trouble finding much work in
this area.


Jamie Young


Jan 4, 2009, 8:42:36 PM1/4/09
to Design and Behaviour
Hi Jamie. The work by BJ Fogg is a book called Persuasive
Technology. Here's a link on Amazon:

The work by Ian Kerr is law review article called Bots, Babes, and the
Californication of Commerce. Here's a link on SSRN:
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