Sunday, April 16, 2006

Can a robot replace your receptionist?

Money Magazine: "A Japanese temp agency wants robotic rentals modeled after characters like Hello Kitty to man the front desk."

Receptionists have always occupied a strange netherworld of corporate hierarchy. On the one hand, they are considered mere lowly decorations, simple reactive functions for potential bodies who seek entrance. On the other hand, they control the first flow of information, and their ability to direct input is an important one.

The Robo-Cat is only good for playing "Confuse a Cat" with the real cats. Likewise, I suspect the Robo-Receptionist will basically frustrate real people, the same way those phone menus are so annoying and unresponsive we wind up hitting "0" at every turn, in a frantic attempt to reach a person. The person we reach is just as unlikely to be helpful, but they can be persuaded. Robots are like the worst aspects of an unresponsive person, bluntly repeating their few options, and impervious to emotional appeals.

I suppose this is why they are making the Robo-Receptionist cute, as opposed to something else. In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, by Daniel Harris, he makes this point: "Although the gaze we turn on the cute thing seems maternal and solicitous, it is in actuality a transformative gaze that will stop at nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big heartedness, even at the expense of mutilating the object of its affections."

Cute is an expression of uselessness. It is all cute has to offer, and even that is dependent on the proper response of the recipient of the cute. Which is why cute can so quickly turn cloying in an adult. We expect adults to have more ability to impact their environment. To get something done, for themselves and for us.

That is why the appeal of my Robo-Kitty diminished so quickly into annoyance. Its programmed attempts to get my attention was a hollow mockery of the actual give and take of real affection and response. The real cats and I were feeling diminished and reduced to a mere byplay of transistors.

Which wasn't true.

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