Domo arigato, Ms. Roboto

I’m a few days behind on this news piece, apparently, but it certainly jumped out at me when I saw it yesterday: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2876632/androids-will-greet-guests-at-japanese-smart-hotel.html http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/04/travel/japan-hotel-robots/index.html

These days, it’s sometimes hard to separate the technology from the message when we talk about communication; they certainly go hand in hand. We have even come up with our own verbs to link the two: “I Facebooked her” or “I tweeted him.” These are verbs of communication specific to the media platform and application; just think of the verbs they replaced: “to say” or “to write.” “Saying” or “writing” something – these are human activities. They point to the vox humana, the “human voice,” which is replete with tones and volume, or to the human hand, which can pick up a pencil or pen to share experiences. But these other verbs direct us to the application; the human-ness is left out of the equation.

So here’s this Henn-na Hotel [Strange Hotel] at Japan’s Huis Ten Bosch theme park, where three (eerily) human-looking robots will be the receptionists with whom visitors will interact when they check in. According to the CNN article, the park’s president, Hideo Sawada, says he hopes “robots will eventually run 90% of the property.” How do we talk with our students about this type of (human?) communication? I see several levels to the story about this conceptual hotel, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them to help students learn to think about such nowadays fairly mundane actualities in order to understand communication concepts more fully.

The first, of course, is the fun part – how people have applied human know-how to a pile of electronics to create a never-before-experienced venue. It’s about pushing boundaries, testing inventions and innovations, allowing visitors to try something so new, so interesting, that they’ll provide the best advertising any company could hope for: word of mouth. By asking our students how they think people will talk about their experiences at this hotel, we have entrée into the ideas of two famous communication researchers: Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld. Their 1957 volume Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications (2nd ed. 2005; New York: Free Press) brought to light the two-step flow of communication theory (see http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/ for a quick review). As we talk about this theme park, we can tell students about how the people who love cutting-edge technology and firsts of all kinds will, assuming they had a great experience, serve as opinion leaders for this incredible experiment. As we discuss the fact that CNN notes that Sawada hopes to build “1,000 similar hotels around the world,” we can then move to communication researcher Everett Rogers, his diffusion of innovation theory, and the four elements of that diffusion: innovations, communication channels, time, and social system (see http://communicationtheory.org/diffusion-of-innovation-theory/ for a quick review). These are a few ways to get students to understand how human communication helps new ideas spread and become accepted, often by using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

But more than this, we can talk about what the “communication” between humans and robots tells us about our culture on a mass scale. We can probably point to any number of ways to do this, but as I read the online articles, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1965; N.Y.: McGraw-Hill) came immediately to mind. McLuhan told us that it is the medium itself, not the message carried by the medium, that affects our society. I’m planning to throw this one at my students tomorrow and ask them what message is being sent when we go to a vacation resort and 90 percent of the staff we interact with is mechanical. What affects our society more – the fact that someone could build a mechanically run hotel, or that we have reached a point in our evolution where we don’t need actual humans to communicate with, but rather figures created to look like us, made from plastic and wires and microchips? How important are humans in this equation, then? If “the medium is the message,” is the message that we are now replaceable? And from a cultural aspect, what are the long-term implications of this message not only on the human psyche but on the job market as well?

Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, in his 1965 paper “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,”1 noted that “The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. . . . Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase.” This prediction, now known as Moore’s Law, is one that our students need to keep in mind as they engage not only with the present advancement of technological growth but with the implications for communication in the future of our society; here’s a story that allows us to easily show them both.

I love finding articles like this through social media; they are goldmines for teaching theory.

  1. Electronics, April 19, 1965: 114–117; available at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~fussell/courses/cs352h/papers/moore.pdf
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