A group of European scientists is researching something fascinating: whether we can more easily overcome social anxiety and social disabilities that accompany some mental health issues with robots designed to be our mirrors.
The project is called AlterEgo. The idea is that we are most comfortable interacting with someone who looks just like us–the theory of similarity. The team is testing virtual avatar and a humanoid robot to see which forms of similarity we respond best to: looks, behavior, or movement.
New York Magazine has details of the experiments that have been completed as part of the project so far:
In the first experiment, 15 participants sat in a chair and moved their hands around as a sensor recorded their movements (the researchers told them to “create interesting motions and enjoy playing”). The researchers then used this information to determine each person’s individual motor signature, a mathematical way of measuring an individual movement style. (If you and I each raise our right arms straight out in front, for example, there will be small, subtle differences in the way we do it — one of us will be slightly faster, jerkier, et cetera.)
In the second, 16 people were split into pairs and shown a ball mounted on a horizontal string, then asked to move the ball back and forth along the string in three scenarios: on their own, out of view of their partner; copying their partner’s movements (the members of each pair switched off being leader and follower); and during a “collaborative round,” in which they mirrored one another’s movements, with no leader and no follower. Throughout these exercises, the researchers tracked the pairs’ progress to see how well they synchronized their motions. Overall, they found, the pairs that performed best were the ones where the partners had similar motor signatures.
If researchers are able to pin down just what we respond to, they hope to be able to help people with social anxiety slowly move from a completely comfortable interaction of perfect similarity to a more realistic encounter with more differences.
If the project pans out, you could find yourself easily interacting with a stranger before you know it, even if the only person you feel comfortable talking to is yourself.