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Do Robots Need A Story For Us To Trust Them?

Robots and other seemingly inanimate objects may seem just that, but of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t wish to ascribe certain human characteristics to them, with many of these efforts done in a bid to try and make the technology seem more lifelike, and therefore more trustworthy. “Making technology more human is a common approach to make the technology more familiar to us and thus make people more comfortable using it,” Sridhar Iyengar, Head of Europe, Zoho Corporation, told me. “For instance, with chatbots you don’t want answers to be too scripted as you want it to appear natural to help people bond with it.” One of the more interesting developments in this area is to make robots either male or female. For instance, research from Washington State University suggests that the supposed sex of a robot affects how, or even whether, we want to engage with it. The study argues that people may actually be happier conversing with a robot in hospitality settings if the robot appears to be female rather than male. This was especially so when the robot was humanoid in appearance. “People have a tendency to feel more comfort in being cared for by females because of existing gender stereotyping about service roles,” the authors explain. That gender stereotype appears to transfer to robot interactions, and it is more amplified when the robots are more human-like.”

Robot origins

Research from Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that this might extend to the “origins” of a robot. The study found that when we think about the people who create robots (and other technologies), we seem to regard the work performed by the robot as more authentic. Traditionally we tend to view AI as less authentic than humans, but the researchers wanted to understand if assigning a form of a human origin story to technology could help to reduce that authenticity gap. “If you look at what drives purchases of consumers in advanced economies, it’s often not objective characteristics of products or services,” the authors explain. “It’s our interpretation of them, the meaning we derive. It matters a lot if we think something is authentic.” This can be hugely powerful for companies, as it is believed that authenticity is so powerful that we’re willing to pay more for goods and services that we believe are authentic.

Artificial authenticity

The researchers tested the authenticity of AI technology in a range of scenarios, from recruitment to therapy. The work in each scenario was performed by a hypothetical AI agent, called Cyrill. In each scenario, Cyrill was given a backstory related to the work “he” did. Gaining trust between robots and humans has been an ongoing source of research for some time now. For instance, research from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory suggests that human facial expressions could be crucial in establishing that trust, at least on the battlefield. “We wanted to characterize and quantify factors that impact the emotional experience that humans have with trust in automated driving,” the researchers explain. “With this information, we want to develop a robust way to predict decision errors in automation use to eventually enable active, online mitigation strategies and effective calibration techniques when humans and agents are teaming in real-time.” Suffice to say, however, giving robots a human origin story is perhaps rather more straightforward than giving them human facial characteristics. It also appeared to have a stronger impact on the authenticity of the robot. Indeed, this boost was even found when the origin story was deliberately tailored to be less humanlike.

Forming bonds

The issue of developing trust with robots is becoming more pressing as our interactions with them become more frequent. For instance, research from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology explored how robots can build trust both by touching humans but also by engaging in a degree of small talk while they do so. The researchers tested the impact of robotic touch and also robotic touch when combined with speech on a pool of Japanese volunteers. For instance, sometimes the volunteers received a gentle stroke on their back from the robot’s arm, whereas in others they also received remarks such as “Hello, how are you doing?” alongside the stroke. The volunteers reported better mood in the conditions where the robot both touched them and talked to them. What’s more, they also said that their mood was most positively affected when the speech and touch happened simultaneously. The results also found that there was considerably more facial activity in muscles associated with smiling when the robot touched and spoke to participants. People in this condition were also more inclined to think of their robot companion as human-like.

Building trust

While we may assume that the way in which we build such trusting relationships will inevitably differ from the approach taken with fellow humans, that may not be the case. Research from the University of Montreal suggests that the way we build trust with robots is very similar to the way we do so with humans. The researchers conducted a trust game experiment, whereby human volunteers were asked to bestow a $10 endowment to a partner, who was either a human, a robot, or a robot acting on behalf of a human. It was in many ways a classic game theory setup, with the human volunteer knowing that gains were to be made, but the trust would be key. The robots in the experiment were programmed to mimic reciprocation behaviors from previous human players. It’s common in these kinds of games for decisions to quickly converge around outcomes that are mutually beneficial to both parties. In this experiment, a key factor was the emotional reaction of people following their interactions with robots versus humans. The results suggest that people develop trust similarly in both humans and robots. Traditionally, people would trust humans for both monetary gains and also gain information about the other party, and a similar pattern emerged in the relations with the robots. This is positive, especially as interactions between man and machine are becoming both more frequent and are taking place in more sensitive domains. Nonetheless, if we want to encourage trusting relationships to form, giving technology both a face and a back story might not do any harm.

June 2022, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Adi Gaskell

How Covid-19 changed Business Travel Forever

Zoom meetings have fundamentally altered how and why people hit the road for work. Now “bleisure” and “return to base” are corporate travel buzzwords in the new normal.

Just over two years ago, Romano Nickerson was traveling three days or more per week for client meetings and attending four conferences a year. But his road-warrior lifestyle came to a screeching halt in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nickerson, a 48-year-old principal in the Colorado-based architectural consulting firm Boulder Associates, soon discovered that nearly all of his in-person meetings could be handled virtually. Today Nickerson says he is “treating an in-person meeting as being much more precious than it was in the past, when it was sort of just this default.” Just back from his first business trip since March 2020, he does not expect to go back to living out of a suitcase. Nor does he believe that his 150-employee firm will revert to pre-pandemic business-travel habits anytime soon. “We still have a policy that allows folks to follow their own comfort level,” Nickerson says. “Right now, there is still very, very little business travel going on. I would estimate maybe a dozen trips per month, when it was probably four or five times that at its peak.”

The challenge for the business-travel sector, of course, is that even if Covid eventually goes away, Zoom will still be here. Nickerson is but a single drop in a sea of executives reassessing the value of work trips in a new normal where web conferencing is not only essential but, for many in the workforce, preferred. That trend is not going away, and it’s spawning new catch phrases like “bleisure” and “return to base.” According to Morning Consult data, the percentage of frequent business travelers who say they’ll never return to the road has ticked up from 39% in October 2021 to 42% in February 2022. At a New York Times event back in November 2020, Bill Gates sent a chill through the travel industry when he predicted that more than 50% of business travel and more than 30% of days worked in offices would go away permanently. “Now that it’s not the gold standard to say, ‘Yes, you flew all the way over to sit in front of me,’ and that you can do the virtual connection, it will be a very high threshold for actually doing that business trip,” the Microsoft co-founder said. In 2019, business travel had injected $334 billion dollars in spending into the U.S. economy and supported 2.5 million jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association. If Gates were right, the American economy would stand to lose at least $167 billion dollars per year post-pandemic.

“We are undergoing the biggest change to travel since the advent of commercial flying.”

Flash forward 16 months and Gates’ assessment is now accepted, more or less, both inside and outside the travel industry. “The pandemic has led to extensive use of videoconferencing and virtual meetings, and many companies expect virtual work to persist over the long term,” concluded the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in a February 2022 report forecasting employment demand in various industries. The labor bureau predicted that many types of business trips would be replaced by virtual meetings, though some in-person trips – for instance, sales pitches and trade conferences – would return to pre-pandemic normal. While few people expect business travel to disappear completely, the sector is going to look very different on the other side of the pandemic. For starters, those boomerang trips that waste a day traveling for a one-hour meeting? “Definitely gone, and they’ve probably gone for good,” says Matthew Parsons, who covers business travel and writes a weekly Future of Work Briefing for Skift, the travel intelligence company.

“The bigger the company, the harder they are going to be on those one-day trips,” says Parsons, noting that corporations are scrutinizing travel expenses more closely now. “The travel management side of things is moving more toward the CFO than anyone else. The last two years, people have shown that they can work pretty well without traveling a lot,” he says. “So the finance department’s going to be really watching company time on travel in the future.”

Opportunities in the New Normal

Few travel companies have navigated the pandemic as nimbly as Airbnb. By May 2021, the company’s CEO was already sounding a lot like Bill Gates. “I think that traditional business travel is never going to return the way it was,” Brian Chesky told CNN’s Poppy Harlow at the time. “The bar is higher to get on a plane to do a meeting. We’re realizing how many things can finally be done remotely.” Chesky and his team noticed that the average Airbnb rental period had lengthened dramatically during the pandemic. That trend, they concluded, was part of a bigger picture: for many customers, the lines between living, working and traveling were blurring. “We started seeing these shifting trends in Summer 2020,” says Catherine Powell, Airbnb’s global head of hosting. “As lockdowns lifted, many people found themselves still able to work from home but not tethered to an office or even a specific location. So they searched for different homes, ones where they could take their families, their pets, and where they could continue working remotely. And they stayed for weeks at a time. We believe these longer stays and flexible living are here to stay.” In other words, Airbnb saw early on that remote and work-from-anywhere was not a temporary blip but a fundamental shift in how people would travel from now on. Six months after Chesky’s CNN interview, Airbnb had fully embraced a strategy focusing on delivering guests more flexibility. “We made over 150 upgrades in 2021, rolling out features like flexible searching and a tool to test the WiFi speed called Verified WiFi, and other tools for our hosts to update their spaces to meet the new demands of today’s travelers,” says Powell.

And as remote work became more permanent at many companies, Airbnb started collaborating for solutions. “For example, during the pandemic, Salesforce introduced Success from Anywhere, which gives employees flexibility where, when and how they work,” says Powell. “Salesforce employees enjoy the new flexibility they have, but also still want opportunities to come together and reconnect safely with their teams. With Airbnb, Salesforce employees can travel to an offsite or another office location and stay at an Airbnb of their choosing.”

Last month, Airbnb posted a record $1.5 billion in Q4 2021 earnings and announced that 2021 was the best year in the company’s history. “Nearly two years into the pandemic, it’s clear that we are undergoing the biggest change to travel since the advent of commercial flying,” Chesky said on the earnings call. “Remote work has untethered many people from the need to be in an office. And as a result, people are spreading out to thousands of towns and cities, staying for weeks, months, or even entire seasons at a time.”

The Pivot to Leisure

Hotels have also taken notice of a significant shift, but it’s different from the one Airbnb is capitalizing on. The American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) has seen business travel’s share of room revenue drop during the pandemic, from 53% in 2019 to a projected 44% this year. “Leisure demand has led the recovery, and we are well‐positioned to continue growing our lead in resort destinations, including in the high growth all‐inclusive space,” Marriott CEO Tony Capuano said on his company’s fourth-quarter 2021 earnings call. “We have also been seeing strong preference for our luxury properties.” This makes perfect sense. Historically, business travel has rebounded slower than leisure travel following catastrophic events like the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the 2008 financial recession, which also explains why so many professional prognosticators have predicted a slow and tepid recovery for corporate travel. The AHLA’s annual “State of the Hotel Industry” report, published in January, predicts that “while leisure travel will likely return fully in 2022, business travel is projected to remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels.” With such a big question mark looming over business travel’s recovery, some major hotel groups have spent significantly to pivot hard toward vacationers. “We’re very bullish on leisure travel. It’s proven its resiliency and durability,” Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian told investors last August when announcing the acquisition of luxury resorts operator Apple Leisure Group. The $2.7 billion cash deal made Hyatt the world’s largest operator of luxury all-inclusive resorts based on room count and the largest operator of luxury hotels in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Though airlines have always relied on business travelers for their bread and butter, there are opportunities in the new normal for them, too. “The airlines are probably very worried by the fact that the business travel accounts are going to slowly fade away,” says Parsons, noting that the larger airlines are hedging their bets, pivoting to “more premium economy seats, with business class being taken out.” Airlines also need to be more nimble in identifying opportunities and shifting to other routes, he says. “As you start seeing more leisure routes on the big city pairs, there will be regional airlines picking up a lot of that commuter traffic. So as people move outside of these big cities to smaller towns, then airlines are going to start putting more routes in to serve people coming into the office two days a week.”

Two Trends to Watch

Business travel’s big buzzword now is “bleisure.” It’s exactly what it sounds like—a blend of business and leisure. A typical bleisure trip might be a three-day work trip with a few days of play tacked on to the front or back end. Or a one-week vacation might be extended to two weeks, with the traveler bringing along the technology needed to work from the road on the second week. Morning Consult’s February 2022 report found that the share of former frequent travelers who expect to take a bleisure trip in the coming year is nearly equal to the share who will travel solely for business. The AHLA’s 2022 report also noted that bleisure has “exploded during the pandemic.” But it’s hardly a new phenomenon. “I’ve actually been doing that for 15 years,” says Nickerson, adding that during the summer of 2019, he turned a three-day business trip in Hawaii into a 10-day family vacation. “You know, that is perfectly normal for me.” A fresher trend is being dubbed “return to base” travel. Think of it as the old business-travel model but in reverse. In the conventional paradigm, employees based at company headquarters flew off to do business in other cities. With “return to base” travel, remote workers will be called into the mothership from time to time, much like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. One company already embracing “return to base” in a big way is Salesforce, whose new 75-acre, 140-room Trailblazer Ranch is nestled among the redwoods in Scotts Valley, California. The campus was conceived as in-person gathering place for its 70,000-strong workforce, the vast majority of which has opted to work remotely or on a hybrid model. “Salesforce wants to create a network of ranches around the world in nature,” explains Parsons. “These bigger companies are looking to buy hotels and own them and have their own corporate retreats,” Parsons says. “That’s definitely happening, and I think when people can travel freely again, especially internationally, these retreats will be quite a big aspect of business travel in the future.”

May 2022, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

Lottery Numbers, Blockchain Articles And Cold Calls To Moscow: How Activists Are Using New Tools To Outsmart Russian Censors

Early last year, Tobias Natterer, a copywriter at the ad agency DDB Berlin, began pondering how to evade Russian censors.

His client, the German arm of nonprofit Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was looking for more effective ways to let Russians get the news their government didn’t want them to see. RSF had been duplicating censored websites and housing them on servers deemed too important for governments to block—a tactic known as collateral freedom. (“If the government tries to shoot down the website,” Natterer explains, “they also have to shoot down their own websites which is why it’s called collateral.”) The problem was how to help people find those mirrored websites. Then came a crazy idea: What if they could slip news past Russian censors by hiding articles—like Easter eggs in a video game—that people could unlock with a secret code? And what if that secret code was generated by Russia itself, through the winning numbers in the state lottery? Every time new numbers were posted, the team could use them to create a new web address. Anyone searching those numbers on Twitter or other platforms would then find links to the banned site and forbidden news. Talk about timing. Just as they were about to launch the strategy in Russia and two other countries, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine. The Kremlin immediately clamped down on nationwide coverage of its actions, making the RSF/DDB experiment even more vital. They mirrored the website for Meduza, an independent Russia-focused news outlet that had been labeled a foreign agent by the Russian government in April 2021. And since the invasion, traffic has been so heavy to the lottery-numbered site that the team had to buy more server space and upgrade the site. RSF and DDB also testing ways to use blockchain technology to mint articles and photos of the war—and plan to have more sites active in the coming days. “We want to make sure that press freedom isn’t just seen as something defended by journalists themselves,” says Lisa Dittmer, RSF Germany’s advocacy officer for Internet freedom. “It’s something that is a core part of any democracy and it’s a core part of defending any kind of freedom that you have.”

Propaganda has long been a staple of war. From bombs showering pamphlets on enemy troops to censorship at home, controlling the message is often seen as key in mobilizing public support. Putin’s iron grip on what gets conveyed to Russians about its war in Ukraine is being attacked on multiple fronts, from whack-a-mole efforts on social media to telemarketing campaigns, Telegram videos and more. Ukrainian entrepreneurs are even hijacking their own apps to let Russians know what’s going on. While such efforts have mixed success, they demonstrate the ingenuity needed to win the information battle that’s as old as war itself.

Activists have found other ways to deliver truth bombs into Russia about the invasion. In the United Kingdom, a crowdfunded campaign raised £40,000 to target Russians with digital ads with real news about the war. (Organizers say they delivered 57 million ads before being blocked in Russia earlier this week.) Hackers have also organized grassroots efforts: The group known as Anonymous has asked people to rate Russian restaurants and shops on Google Maps to leave reviews explaining what’s happening in Ukraine. Meanwhile, an organization called Squad303 built an online tool that lets people automatically send Russians texts, WhatsApp messages and emails. Some of the most effective strategies rely on old-school technologies. The use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, has skyrocketed in Russia since the war began. That may explain why the country’s telecom regulator has forced Google to delist thousands of URLs linked to VPN sites. For Paulius Senūta, an advertising executive in Lithuania, the weapon of choice is the telephone. He recently launched “CallRussia,” a website that enables Russian speakers to cold-call random Russians based on a directory of 40 million phone numbers. Visitors to the site get a phone number along with a basic script developed by psychologists that advises callers to share their Russian connections and volunteer status before encouraging targets to hear what’s really going on. Suggested lines include “The only thing (Putin) seems to fear is information,” which then lets callers stress the need to put it “in the hands of Russians who know the truth and stand up to stop this war.” In its first eight days, Senūta says users from eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world placed nearly 100,000 calls to strangers in Russia.

In a modern world inundated with spam, scams and other unwanted marketing messages, do any of these efforts even work? The impact of those volunteer efforts is less clear. “One thing is to call them and the other thing is how to talk with them,” says Senūta. As with any telemarketing call, the response from those on the receiving end has been mixed. While some have been receptive, others are angry at the interruption or suspicious that it’s a trick. “How do you speak to someone who has been in a different media environment?”

Good question. After all, Russian authorities have long been hostile to news that doesn’t tow the party line. “You face this propaganda everywhere,” says Oleg Kozlovsky, a Russia researcher with Amnesty International. Within days of the invasion, the country’s communications regulator accused local media sites of spreading unreliable and untrue information, mandating the use of only official government sources in reporting. Terms like “war,” “invasion,” or “aggression” have been banned from coverage, punishable by fines of up to five million rubles (now roughly $52,000) or 15 years in prison. Says Kozlovsky: “It’s getting worse and worse.”

Existing censor-free platforms like Telegram should be utilized rather than inventing anything entirely new, notes Kozlovsky. (Last week, Arnold Schwarzenegger uploaded a lengthy video message to Russians via Telegramthat included both Russian and English subtitles.) However, that it doesn’t mean it hurts to also try new things.

“You don’t know in advance which ones will work and which ones won’t,” Kozlovsky says. “It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to work so it’s a good thing to have various methods and various initiatives trying to reach out to Russians.”

The question is whether Russians realize they’re being fed on a media diet of state-sponsored lies and criminalization of the truth. Dittmer believes many Russians are eager to know what’s really going on. So far, RSF’s “Truth Wins” campaign has been viewed more than 150,000 times in Russia. (Previous efforts by DDB and RSF in various countries have included embedding censored news in a virtual library within Minecraft and a playlist on Spotify.)

Censorship also cuts both ways. While Russian authorities have banned Facebook and Instagram as “extremist,” Western news outlets have in turn cut ties with state-controlled outlets because of Putin’s disinformation campaign. While pulling products and partnerships out of Russia may send a powerful message to the Kremlin, such isolation also risks leaving a bubble of disinformation intact. Luckily, “it’s pretty much impossible to censor effectively,” says RSF’s Dittmer, pointing to further efforts to use blockchain and gaming technology to spread news. “We can play the cat and mouse game with the internet censors in a slightly more sophisticated way.”

April 2022, CICO writer  Staff Reporter Marty Swant