I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Interviewer Overlords
By Steve Portigal at 1:56 pm, Tuesday June 11 2013

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From Wired, comes These Adorable Robots Are Making a Documentary About Humans. Really.

Created by artist and roboticist Alex Reben for his master’s thesis at MIT, the BlabDroids are tiny, adorable robotic cinematographers who will be filming interviews at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York as part of the the film festival’s transmedia Storyscapes program. At least 20 BlabDroids will zip around to attendees-they’re self-propelled via motorized wheels- and ask them often very personal questions like, “Tell me something that you’ve never told a stranger before,” “What’s the worst thing you’ve done to someone,” and “Who do you love most in the world?”

Each droid carries a digital camera, a speaker that asks a series of pre-programmed questions to ask whomever it encounters and a button to be pushed to prompt new queries.

“We plan to give the robots to some interesting New Yorkers,” filmmaker Brent Hoff, who is working on the BlabDroid project with Reben, said in an email to Wired. “Hopefully Anthony Weiner and some Broadway types.” The robots, which are very adorable and voiced by a 7-year-old boy, are intended to test the theory of MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s “ELIZA effect,” which found that people are inclined to anthropomorphize computers and thus engage emotionally with artificial intelligence. Although this initially lead Weizenbaum to worry about AI’s potential to manipulate, Reben and Hoff have created the BlabDroids to appear comforting and non-judgmental, and to capture meaningful interactions with their subjects.

This is a fascinating experiment. I’d love to see the results, as well as the raw footage and of course to get to talk to someone about their experience being interviewed like this would be very interesting. Similar to Interviewing without questions, eye contact or rapport, the notion of freeing up people from human interactions in order to liberate them to reveal more deeply is a curious (and certainly valid) idea. No doubt the clips will be great; people are pretty interesting and curious, so pointing a camera at them will be entertaining.

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