November 1, 2007
My Afternoon with the Robot

If anyone believes we live in a world that is all about social connections, and understanding people in relation to one another rather than as distinct wholes, it would be folks around CMS and the Consortium. Concepts we discuss often such as the value of Web 2.0 and social networks, as well as fan communities and "collective intelligence," are all about the power of meeting people.

But, recently, I had a chance to not just meet up with an interesting who, but a what as well. Yesterday afternoon, while spending some time in downtown Boston, I ended up in what turned into a longer conversation with a man and his robot.

The man was Robert Doornick, founder and president of International Robotics, and Robert is a compelling guy. I found an unexpected meeting-in-passing with him stretch into an afternoon conversation, some of which took place with him and the rest of which was conducted with his accompanying robot, which can speak multiple languages and engaged with passersby through Doornick's own intervention.

On his site, Dornick lists his inspirations as the French cartoon character Inspector Gadget and American science fiction movies. His enthusiasm for his own work, and his tying it back to educational principles, comes through in his enthusiasm, discussing his own history with not being able to pay attention in school and his quest to use technology to help bridge educational and social gaps.

These grander motivations continued to play a prominent role in our discussion, even as it moved toward how to implement the technology for marketing purposes. How can the robot act as company mascot? What fascinated me was how much the conversation hinged on talk about surplus audiences. The lack of racial and cultural markers for the robot, for instance, means that it can be a symbol free of many of the complications from humankind. Our discussion turned toward what that might mean for breaking the mold of a "target demographic," even in this limited example of using technology AS marketer, and toward how often surplus audiences have a major impact on the purchasing process, even if they are not the demographic being targeted.

I write about this most often in relation to television, where viewers outside the target demo still often have a very important impact on the viewing habits of those within the target demo, whether it be spouses who watch programs together, mothers and daughters, or the unlimited variations of relationships we all have, that transcend the simple binaries of the target demographic mentality.

To give some idea of what Doornick does, here is more information from Jon Aboud's piece at Stay Free!. I'm sure some of what Dornick says can be controversial, especially for people questioning how the robot can last long-term as a mascot. Take a look at this quote:

We've had many, many situations where we've been used by major corporations in similar settings, where members of the audience have a specific agenda for attacking that corporation on issues having to do with economics or pollution--things that are not necessarily beneficial to consumers. The robot is essentially there to say, "I'm glad you asked that question because I was thinking about the same thing. And I looked deep down into the mind-set of these humans who run this corporation, and I was amazed to see how many of those humans are sensitive to those issues and are trying so hard, right now, to work around those issues and solve these problems," and blah blah blah.The robot is making a case for humanity and humanitarianism. Sometimes we treat a corporation like a stereotype. It's like saying, "All Arabs are idiots because of what's going on in Iraq." We package people very quickly and tend to forget that maybe the big corporation that's doing all the wrong things could be doing them because of one or two bad seeds. Sometimes it takes a child to make us listen to that other angle and say, okay, instead of fighting, why don't we try to work together.

So what is the purpose of the robot? Is it to diffuse a serious situation through an out-of-place gimmick? Is it to provide a face to marketing that isn't tied up with preconceived racial/cultural markers? Or is it to make us more aware of human nature and biases ironically by presenting a non-human entity communicating in very human-like ways, with a human controller? Or does it have to be any one way?

One this is for sure; Doornick got me thinking about the uses of technology as the face of education, of a campaign, of public relations, of damage control. And it raises a lot of interesting issues about marketing and education and politics, especially since he's playing in a space among and between the two.