My Robot Made Me Buy It!

A debate rages over whether brick-and-mortar or online retail will ultimately claim the greater share of consumer hearts and wallets. While that debate continues, however, a new channel has emerged – the home robot. Your home robot is more than just a little helper; it (often referred to by some as she or he) is a new and powerful influential link between consumers and businesses.

2017 might (finally) be the year of the robot, if we go by the public attention that robotics and AI have been receiving lately from the media, consumers, and retailers. The biggest newsmaker at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show was Amazon’s AI personal assistant, Alexa – and these robotic helpers are rapidly appearing on kitchen counters, nightstands and desks in homes across the country. Ford Motor Company has announced that it will make Alexa mobile by making it a feature in our cars. Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and emerging competitors will make these robots a ubiquitous feature in our lives in the near future. From playing our favorite tunes to turning on the lights to ordering cat food, these robotic assistants are filling wants and creating new needs we did not know we had. Service robots now scurry across our homes, vacuuming floors and cleaning gutters. Soon robotic cars will be taking us far and wide. As a researcher interested in consumer behavior and technology use across the lifespan, I’m especially fascinated with the use of social bots that coo and purr to keep older adults company or mitigate certain chronic conditions. 


Robots are evolving into something more than digital servants. They are becoming our companions. McKinsey recently fielded a consumer study through which many respondents reported that they thought of their tabletop bot as a “friend”. Something important is happening here – the birth of a new and influential adviser that has real power to affect our expectations and behavior. These digital friends are fast becoming an entirely new channel for business-to-consumer communications and sales. Businesses might one day find themselves primarily marketing through—and perhaps even toward—our robot companions.

As anyone involved in marketing knows, we’re more likely to buy products from those that we trust and from those that we believe understand us. According to Edelman research, we are more likely to trust those faces that we categorize as “people like me”. “People like me” understand me better than any expert, government official or company. “People like me” understand me because we share common experiences and values. Our robots don’t look anything like us, and they do not maintain any set of values of their own, but they do know us. AI and data analytics enable our robotic housemates to know our foods, music tastes, sleeping hours, commute patterns and more. By recording and acting in accordance to our preferences and behaviors, a robot does, in a sense, take on a set of values – our values. Our silicon companions may come to know us even better than our fleshy human friends do.

These robots are with us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,  able to respond to our stated desires and in some cases even anticipate them. How long will it be until my Echo or any other device is connected to my smart refrigerator and alerts me that I am out of a staple food that’s critical to my wellbeing, say, double fudge brownie ice cream? How long until my home bot manages an entire home peppered with the Internet-of-Things and knows simply to order double fudge brownie ice cream for me without even having to ask first? How long until I am no longer surprised by this service but have come to expect it? 

A debate rages over whether brick-and-mortar or online retail will ultimately claim the greater share of consumer hearts. While that debate continues, however, a new channel has emerged – the home robot. It takes far less effort to shop by robot than by any other means. Even online shopping requires the active decision to get on a device, and then to shop, price and often sort truth from fiction in user reviews. The desire to buy might persist throughout this process, but the passion to buy right now, that powerful, impulsive force, is bound to ebb.

On the other hand, nothing requires less effort than asking a trusted friend that is always near for a quick ‘favor’.. A home robot can advise and enable consumer action at the buyer’s highest point of awareness where need, emotional intensity and desire converge: the crucial moment in which we realize, “OMG – I’m out of fudge sauce!” 

Your robot lives with you. Every day she gets to know you more intimately, or at least as intimately as a piece of silicon-fused plastic can. She’s able to respond immediately to every need or whim at the moment of its expression, whether your head is in the refrigerator, you’re feeding Fido, or you are opening the bills. We trust those who we believe understand us – and our robots have the power to understand our wants, needs, preferences, and habits. More than anything, perhaps, we trust predictability – and robots are nothing if not predictable. And robots are more than just little helpers; they are a new and powerful distribution channel between consumers and businesses.

Image by Shutterstock 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.