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Would You Trust This Robot If It Gave You a Cookie?

Most Harvard students would.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Booth's robot, Gaia, waits outside the entrance to Quincy House. Image: Serena Booth.

As robots and artificial intelligences come to increasingly control more aspects of our lives, one can't help but wonder if we place a little too much trust in the aptitude of the machines. Although studies have shown that humans are still more scared of a robo-apocalypse than death itself, humans have also demonstrated an immense amount of conviction in decisions made by robots, especially in times of crisis.

To test the limits of humanity's faith in the benevolence of their robotic companions, Harvard senior Serena Booth designed a human-robot interaction study that took place over the course of a month on the Harvard campus. The robot, about two feet tall and outfitted with a camera to allow Booth to monitor and control its interactions remotely, would approach Harvard students outside their dorms and ask them to open the door to the keycard-access buildings.

In total, 108 students interacted with the robot and were generally willing to help it in its quest to infiltrate the dorms. According to Booth, about 19 percent of students helped the robot get inside when the robot approached them when they were alone. Yet when the robot approached groups of students to ask for help, they helped it get inside 71 percent of the time. Of all the 108 students the robot interacted with, only one thought to ask if it had card access to the building.

To see how far she could alter students' perceptions of the robot as a security threat, Booth disguised the robot as a delivery automaton for a fake startup company called RobotGrub. When the robot was equipped with a box of cookies, Booth was surprised to find that individuals helped the robot gain access to the building 76 percent of the time.

Although some students demonstrated concern over the robot (one called campus security), during follow-up interviews Booth said she was surprised to find that even those who were threatened by the robot still helped it get into the building.

Serena Booth and her robot, Gaia, in its cookie-delivery disguise. Image: Adam Zewe/SEAS Communications.

"Another interesting result was that a lot of people stopped to take pictures of the robot," Booth said. "In fact, in the follow-up interviews, one of the participants admitted that the reason she let it inside the building was for the Snapchat video."

According to Booth, her study serves as a cautionary tale about placing too much faith in robots. Although her bot was benign, if it had been equipped with a bomb or other weapon, the Harvard students' willingness to help it gain access to the dorms would have had terrible consequences.

"I'm worried that the results of this study indicate that we trust robots too much," Booth said. "We are putting ourselves in a position where, as we allow robots to become more integrated into society, we could be setting ourselves up for some really bad outcomes."