Building Trust

By: Matthew Battles
July 5, 2010

Here’s a quick robotics mash-up ripped from the headlines:

1. Put the first video on pause and move the time slider to 0:15.

2. Mute the second video (it’s okay — it’s a silent movie!), pause it, and set it to 2:18.

3. Start the first video and then the second in quick succession.

The second video, (as if I need to tell you, dear HiLobrow reader) is from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The scientist, Rotwang, lost his hand in creating his Machine-man, or Futura. He hopes to turn her into a simulacrum of Hel, his beloved, who long ago chose the love of all-powerful John Fredersen over that of the scientist. When Fredersen meets Futura, he sees in her a tool for reasserting control over the workers. The climax of the story, it could be said, turns on the capacity of a robot to leap the uncanny valley to trip our most intimate reflexes.

The first video is a demonstration of Nexi the robot, produced for research into the behavorial and cognitive bases of trustworthiness at MIT’s Media Lab. Designed to display elemental markers of emotional response, Nexi allows researchers to measure human observers’ willingness to trust a robot in simple interactions. “It’s a very serious question if you can design these robots and influence people’s judgments of trust,” Media Lab researcher Cynthia Breazeal told Boston Globe reporter Carolyn Y. Johnson. We’re sure John Federsen would agree.