Charismatic Robots

Tony was tall and darkly handsome, with an incredibly patrician air drawn into every line of his unchangeable expression, and Claire Belmont regarded him through the crack in the door with a mixture of horror and dismay. – From ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed, Isaac Asimov

As humans we’ve been fascinated and in awe of robots for a very long time. Mechanical beings – first the automatons which were engineered so skilfully hundreds of years ago. And today we have robots in factories producing goods or assisting people to live independently.

robot sculptures in the window of the Orkney wireless Museum

Isaac Asimov had read robot stories avidly as a young man and went on to write on June 10th 1939 his first robot story. Robbie was about a robot nurse, a little girl, a prejudiced mother and a weak father. In April 1951 ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ was published in which a frustrated housewife meets and is attracted to the robot Tony.

Science fiction – but here is science fact.

Danish scientists working with what they call ‘social’ robots have been looking at the voices produced by the machines and how this changes the user’s interaction and response.

 Dr Kerstin Fischer of the University of Southern Denmark explained:

“We had a robot instruct teams of students in a creativity task. The robot either used a confident, passionate — i.e. charismatic — tone of voice or a normal, matter-of-fact tone of voice.

“We found that when the robot spoke in a charismatic speaking style, students’ ideas were more original and more elaborate.”

In the study  two voices were developed, one charismatic and one less expressive, based on a range of parameters which correlate with perceived speaker charisma. Five groups of students took part in workshops which required team work. The groups that heard the robot with the charismatic voice responded more positively when assessing how their team had performed.

Although the sessions with the charismatic voice were generally more successful, not all the teams responded identically to the different voices.

 Dr Kerstin Fischer added:

“The robot was present only in videos, but one could suspect that more exposure or repeated exposure to the charismatic speaking style would have even stronger effects.

“Moreover, we have only varied a few features between the two robot conditions. We don’t know how the effect size would change if other or more features were varied. Finally, since charismatic speaking patterns differ between cultures, we would expect that the same stimuli will not yield the same results in all languages and cultures.”

In ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’, Claire Belmont responds not only to the robot Tony’s handsome looks but to his voice.

He said, ‘How do you do, Mrs Belmont,

And Claire jumped at Tony’s voice. It was deep and mellow, smooth as the hair on his head or the skin on his face.

You’ll need to read the story to find out how Tony changes Claire and how their relationship develops. Let’s just say, Asimov was here first.

Click on this link to access Charismatic Speech Features in Robot Instructions Enhance Team Creativity, published in Frontiers in Communication

high angle photo of robot which is looking at you
Photo by Alex Knight on

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