In a Bleak World, Turning to Robots for Respite

Let’s face it ― 2016 hasn’t exactly been a bundle of joy. Widespread international conflicts ravage the planet, while America is torn by the most divisive Presidential election in a century. Add in the deaths of beloved celebrities that prompted worldwide mourning, and it’s not surprising that one of the most popular Tweets of the year reads, “Have we tried unplugging 2016 waiting ten seconds then plugging it back in again?”

With smartphones in our pockets all day and next to us at night, we seldom get to escape the negative news cycle. On TV, bickering talking heads take partisan sides. Online, media competes to get our attention with click-baiting headlines. And it feels like it’s here to stay.

It’s not surprising that people are desperate for an escape from this overwhelming sea of pessimistic chatter. What is new, and surprising, is that they are turning to artificial intelligence for a respite, searching for positivity and empathy.

The idea of robots as companions is not new. From ELIZA to Jibo, people have built social robots to relieve loneliness as much as perform tasks. Still, we were amazed by the extent to which the users of Scarlet — an intelligent assistant we are building — responded to her “positive” design.

The original idea behind Scarlet was to reclaim the morning. Scarlet would ease you into your day with a calming voice briefing, keeping work emails, notifications and disastrous news headlines at bay at least until you got out of the bed. Like Alfred from Batman, she’d knock on your door and prep you for your day. She’d tell you about expected weather, your appointments, summarize the most important news, and even offer a fun tidbit of wisdom to inspire you. She was conceived to help out like a friend would, in contrast to the dizzying amounts of text you’ve become accustomed to navigating.

While we strove to make Scarlet helpful, we’ve been overwhelmed by the emotional response to her. We hear daily from people who find her “a friend” and “comforting” throughout all hours of the day. Her users, worn out by daily anxieties, took an immediate shine to Scarlet’s cheerful, neutral tone. Users love Scarlet’s positive outlook, even with something as simple as saying, “today will keep you on your toes” as opposed to “hectic” when your calendar is chock full of meetings.

Turns out, people see robots as objective. They say, “because she’s a robot, I feel like she wouldn’t lie to me.” People are tired of being screamed at by the media. Scarlet doesn’t have an agenda except to assist the person listening to her briefing. She will tailor the session just for you, free of politics if you can’t wait for the elections to be over already.

The world in 2016 is overwhelming. People are looking at technology for that injection of positivity, yet the lion’s share of technology is designed to be purely functional. It’s not delivering on our emotional needs. That little bit of humanity is still largely missing. Scarlet’s mission is to give people back some sanity ― help you carve out “you” time that informs without a side of anxiety or fear. And it’s always just a tap away.