Artificial Intolerance

For five months in 2011, a robot wheeled around an office building at Carnegie Mellon University delivering bananas, cookies, and other afternoon snacks to workers. With wide-set eyes and a pink mouth, Snackbot had a friendly look, but it was prone to mistakes. Long delays in conversations with workers were common. Sometimes the system running Snackbot froze. Still, the workers became comfortable with Snackbot. It apologized when it made a mistake, something its human customers found ingratiating. It was part of an experiment designed to determine whether people would respond positively to a robot that personalized its interactions with them. Snackbot was trained to recognize patterns in the snacks half the people liked and would comment on them. It never learned the preferences of the other half. Over time, the…

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