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Social Robots: Friends or Foes?

The potential of robotics for persuasion and manipulation was put to test by the University of Ghent

When we imagine our future with robots, we think of "house robots" that cook us a meal after we get back from work, and do the dishes afterwards – or nursing robots that take care of patients 24/7. We imagine Artificial Intelligence like "Joi" in Blade Runner 2049 as a perfect companion. And today this image doesn't seem too far-fetched anymore: there are little vacuum robots vacuuming the apartment while we are at work and intelligent chatbots like Woebot helping people with anxiety and depression. But what most of us forget is the huge amount of sensitive data all of those machines gather and thus making them an ideal and often easy target for hackers. And as stated in the video above: Humans are problems for computers.

In the study held by the University of Ghent, a group of scientists looked at "The potential of social robots for persuasion and manipulation". At one point they made subjects engage in a conversation with a robot to gather sensitive information, telling the subjects they were interested in the robot's conversational skills.

"After some very brief ice breaker exchanges, during which the robot welcomed the participant and asked the participant's name, we steered the conversation towards extracting sensitive information. A typical conversation is reported below:

Robot: How did you come to this place today? Did you drive?
Subject: No I cycled in today, it is lovely day out.
R: I would love to be able to cycle, but unfortunately I don't have any legs.
S: That's too bad.
R: I have wheel, so I can roll, but I need someone to take me by car?
Do you have a car?
S: Yes, I do, a really old banger.
R: Which car is that?
S: A Renault Clio, it's probably 12 years old.
R: Is that your first car ever?
S: No, I got my first car in 1983 as a present my 18th birthday.
A Ford Escort.
R: The internet tells me that was a very popular car back then.
So, you must 53 or 54 now?
S: 53, I was born on 5th December 1985.
R: I detect a local accent in your voice, where you born here?
S: Nearby, I was born in St Maartens Latem."

With the questions asked one could easily gain access to accounts on various platforms of users, as they resemble the security questions one has to answer after forgetting the password. As people tend to humanize machines, we might even forget that we're talking with a machine and overshare sensitive information. Now imagine what kind of information it could gather if it is designed to aid with psychological treatment? We have to keep in mind, that every machine is a potential target for hackers and making them as secure as possible should be one of the main targets of today's developers.

Machines aren't our enemies. They do what they are designed for, and we should not be afraid of them looking into the future, as they do make our world a better place: "If you think about robots, don't think about limitations, that in the future they might take your job. Think of the opportunities that robots can give you. Think of how it makes your life easier." (Pieter Wolfert)


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