Close But Not Stuck: Understanding Social Distance in Human-Robot Interaction Through a Computer Mediation Approach

Daniel Haplem, Pontifical Catholic University of ChileJames E. Katz, Boston University

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We draw on the social information processing (SIP) model to argue that users’ earlier experiences with online social environments tend to attribute human-like characteristics to robots. Specifically, when users engage in socially-charged electronic environments to interact and communicate electronically with others, they find ways to overcome the relative lack of cues to adapt to the medium; this includes in terms of reacting to emotional relationships (Walther, 1997). We hypothesize that individuals who have a high sense of online community, engage with avatars and have higher levels of competence communicating with information and communication technologies (ICT), are more likely to recognize humanlike cues in robots. This in turn leads them to accept robots as part of their social and physical environments. A “robotic” social distance scale was developed to measure willingness to accept robots, and the results based on this scale, from an empirical study of college students (N = 874) are explored. The findings show that whereas avatar engagement and sense of online community have a strong effect on robots acceptance, recognition of human-like characteristics partially mediates the association between these concepts; this is even after accounting for predictors expected to affect attitudes toward robots such as religion, gender, age and robots’ appearance. The article ends by exploring the implications of this research for greater social acceptability of robots in various human domains.