Monday, April 16, 2012

Romney First Robot to Run for President

How a candidate of Romney's pedigree could cut such an unsympathetic figure has become a minor obsession in the media. Explanations range from his association with the corporate one percent to his willingness to contradict himself on key issues. All these are true, but the underlying dynamic governing our reaction to his controversial affiliations and positions is a completely natural psychological response to competing stimuli -- one that's best summed up with a technological metaphor. 

In robotics, researchers have observed that as an object acquires human-like properties, people respond to the object with more positive feelings. The less human-like an object, the less empathy.  Robots have been created that approximate human behavior so closely that the mind interprets the robot in human terms even if the machine lacks a human face. The result is an unsettling feeling that borders on anxiety or revulsion. When a robot inspires such emotions, it's said to have fallen into the uncanny valley of a conceptual graph that charts fluctuations in our empathetic capacity. 

Most politicians tend to be ordinary-looking people who spend their time convincing voters they're office-quality material. Romney is rushing the other way: he's the politician from central casting who is stumbling through an audition for a role of regular human. Not that other candidates don't make mistakes -- they do, all the time -- but in Romney's case awkward moments stand out like neon road signs precisely because we expect him to make the jump from TV to reality as effortlessly and convincingly as his polished appearance would imply. 

Romney's task now is to work his way out of the uncanny valley toward a more compelling style of humanity. There's an app being developed for that but will it be ready and will he be able to master it in time?

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