Cuteness is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It discourages exhausted new parents from murdering their screaming infants, it makes bloggers into millionaires, and it may be more effective than fancy artificial intelligence when it comes to getting robots to interact well with humans. That’s the idea behind Boxie, a robot created by Alexander Reben at MIT Media Lab. Reben wanted to design a robot that could approach people and get them to answer interview questions on camera. (As someone who crosses the street to avoid human camera crews hunting for “man on the street” material, I can assure you this is no small feat.) But he also needed the robot to be inexpensive, rugged, and lightweight. Amazingly, simply making the robot adorable solved all these problems at once.
Boxie looks kind of like Wall-E, or the “Bad Robot” logo of J.J. Abrams’ production company: basically just a big boxy head with wide-set eyes on wheels. Its computerized “brain” isn’t very sophisticated, so Boxie just wanders around somewhat helplessly, its cardboard head wobbling and its toddler-like voice plaintively calling out for attention, waiting for a human to come rescue it. Which humans inevitably do: The attraction to cuteness is written into our very genes.
Once the robot has snared someone’s attention, it continues pulling the psychological levers of cuteness to get people to help it do its job. Boxie is supposed to ask people questions on camera, but a low-angle shot from the floor isn’t very useful; so Boxie asks to be picked up like a baby and set on a table “so I can see you better.” (Awww! How could you resist?) Even its lumpen cardboard exterior is a canny play to pull at your heartstrings: Reben says that Boxie was originally meant to have a white plastic body, but everyone thought it looked creepy compared to the cardboard-box mockups he’d created, so he just made Boxie out of cardboard. Not only does it look friendly and nonthreatening, it’s lightweight and cheap as hell.
Granted, not everyone Boxie meets takes a shine to its cutesy act–Reben discovered that people sometimes abused the robot (which he monitored via accelerometers and force sensors in its chassis). But Boxie was still able to fulfill a pretty complex, interactive mission without resorting to sophisticated, expensive machine learning or computer vision technology. Simply being cute allows Boxie to “offload” a lot of the complicated aspects of initiating and sustaining an interaction onto its human target. It’s an utterly brilliant bit of interaction design that makes an end run around the “hard problems” of robotics and artificial intelligence, not to mention some practical issues of industrial engineering. Robot designs like Boxie aren’t going to replace the work-borgs on factory floors, but for addressing the arguably more challenging problems of relating to human beings in unpredictable situations, Boxie shows that infantile likeability can be more effective than smarts.