Humans will befriend a stick — as long as it moves properly


We are so tuned into body language it is amazing. People don’t realize that we notice even the tiniest movements and that sends signals to us.

I have often thought that many people who feel that they are psychic are actually just highly tuned into reading body language. The feelings they get when they “read” people is actually just reading body language.


Somewhat related, I once took part in a psychological study which included interacting with a robot that had eyes and a mouth, and was named Phil. Participants were asked whether we thought Phil had feelings, whether Phil processed thoughts the same way we do, and so on.

At the end of the study we were told that some participants were asked about Phil, while others were asked about a robot that looked less “human” and that didn’t have a human name. We were told that most participants responded to Phil as though he were a person, and thought he had feelings. Apparently I was an outlier, since I didn’t think Phil had feelings or that he was a person. I’m not sure what this says about me. I also wonder if I would have treated the stick as just a stick, in spite of its movements.

“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Motile Companion Stick cannot speak. In the event that the Motile Companion Stick does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”


“Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.”


Did this bring to mind Johnny Carson’s “Dickie the stick” sketch to anyone else? This is a sketch where Mr. Carson mocked children’s toy commercials by giving a similar patter about a simple black wooden dowel.

I can’t get over how potentially USEFUL our power of anthropomorphication is!

Not sure if that’s really a word, though.

I love thinking about how much can actually be communicated with physical movements and body language, but this study to me just looks like bored people playing with a robot.

I think in this study it’s pretty obvious there’s a human on the other end of the stick (observing with a joystick).

It’d be interesting to see if it’s possible for an algorithm to learn to interpret a camera’s view and respond in a similar way, given a mere three variables of movement.

That would be a case of passing a restricted form of the Turing test!

Does having a stick pass the Turing test with an argumentum ad baculum count as cheating or as convincingly human behavior?

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RC stick puppetry.

Heh… I’d say it all comes down to the nuances.

The question you don’t answer is whether you think other humans have feelings or are persons. We can’t say what it says about you without that information.

Now I’m worried that I didn’t think to clarify that. Well, let me now add that, when something bad happens to a person it makes me sad. I’m sorry for what they’re going through, and I imagine how they muse feel. When my microwave breaks all I feel is annoyed that I have to go buy a new one. Even if my microwave’s controls are arranged so that it looks sort of like a face I wouldn’t feel any empathy for it.

How about the Sad Mac?

I’ve owned a Roomba now for about 7 years. My relationship with him is weird. It feels totally natural to refer to the Roomba as “him”, for instance, but I don’t really feel any compunction about locking him in the closet. When he breaks, my feelings are closer to, as you say, when the microwave breaks and you get annoyed. But I talk to the Roomba when he breaks (I don’t do that with other appliances) and have even caught myself patting him (on the head?) when he’s back to working again. It’s totally strange.

I can second this. Before my Roomba was retired due to battery issues, I had named it Rosie and often referred to it as “her”. I also found myself greeting it when I got home or addressing it as it drove past me in my apartment, and in retrospect, I’m sure I treated it with more respect than I do to most of the inanimate objects I own. You are right, it is totally strange.

I’ve noticed the roomba effect becomes even more pronounced with the application of googly eyes, as if where it sits on the scale between Appliance and Pet shifts when it almost but not quite has the beginnings of a face.

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It makes me have a funny feeling when I read these sorts of discussions and everyone is talking about, “Ha, that machine totally fooled us into thinking it was human and it is nothing but a bunch of switches.” and never, “Damn, what if we are just a bunch of switches and fooling ourselves most of the time.”

The phone call, we traced it. It’s coming from inside your own head!

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I hope none of those test subjects actually wanted their identity protected. That was pretty lazy face blurring there.