Tag Archives: interaction


French scientists looked at what makes dolphins happy — and they’re very much like us

Much like us, dolphinkind draws happiness from the relationships they foster — including those with humans.


“Want to hang out by the pond and chew some pufferfish, finless pink mammal?”
Image credits Claudia Beer.

A team of French researchers tried to gauge what dolphins in captivity look forward to most. The study — which they say is the first of its kind — focused on animals from a marine park near Paris and found that they just can’t get enough playtime with a familiar human.

The study came as part of a three-year project meant to measure dolphin welfare in captivity. It’s the first effort to understand the subject from “the animals’ perspective”, the team writes, and shows they’re surprisingly similar to us: the results show that “better human-animal bonds equals better welfare”.

The team worked with the dolphins at Parc Astérix, a theme park with one of France’s largest dolphinariums. With help from her colleagues at the University of Paris’ Animal Behavior Lab, lead author Dr. Isabella Clegg designed several experiments to see how the dolphins felt about certain situations. These were primarily based on interpreting their body postures, activity levels, and other types of behavior. The end goal, she adds, was to “find out what activities in captivity they like most.”

The experiments included three settings. One was the control, in which the dolphins were left alone to do what they wanted. The second involved adding toys to the pool but leaving the dolphins alone. The third one involved a human trainer who came in and played around with the animals.

“We found a really interesting result – all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human,” Dr. Clegg told the BBC.

The team explains that the dolphins showed their enthusiasm through actions such as “spy-hopping”, in which they would peer above the surface to look in the direction that trainers usually approached from. They were also more active, swimming around the pool in anticipation, and spent more time around the pool’s edge.

“We’ve seen this same thing in other zoo animals and in farm animals,” said Dr. Clegg, adding: “Better human-animal bonds equals better welfare.”

The findings do raise some interesting points. Relationships seem to be the cornerstone of happiness, overall mental well-being, and health of humans. This similarity may come down to the fact that dolphins are also social animals and quite intelligent ones at that. It may be, then, that we could form similar bonds with other species that espouse such traits — helping us learn more about them in the process.

Still a tough subject

However, the study can’t say if the dolphins are actually happier in captivity than they would be in the wild — it can only tell us that dolphins in captivity really get a kick out of interacting with people.

That final point sticks out like an especially sore thumb. According to the Change for Animals Foundation, there are over 2,300 captive cetaceans in 50 countries around the world. However, there are certainly more out there but not officially registered. The study at hand shows that we can make these animals enjoy themselves in our presence — but that doesn’t clear the murky moral question of their captivity in the first place.

All this considered, it is undeniable that the whales and dolphins brought into aquariums from the wild have been invaluable to our efforts to understand these species. There’s also an economic and public incentive to maintain this situation — people are curious to see these charming species, and aquariums are happy to charge them for it — so it’s not going to change very soon. While not pleased with the situation, Dr. Clegg believes we should strive to make their lives as happy and enjoyable as we possibly can while they’re here.

“I think the question of whether they should be in captivity is really important and we should be asking it at the moment,” she says. “And it has two elements: are the animals in good welfare? And what is their purpose? And we have to look deeper into the animals’ behaviour to understand how they’re feeling.”

“But even if they are in good welfare, we need more research to ensure that their presence is really engaging people with conservation. If they’re just here for our entertainment, that can’t be justified.”

I agree with her on both points.

The full paper “Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events” has been published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.


Your voice will always sound funny when talking to someone you think is your superior

When holding a conversation, men and women alike tend to change the pitch of their voices based on the perceived social status and prestige of their interlocutors, a new study reports.


Image credits Christine Sponchia.

Humans are social animals par excellence. And, while we may like to think that we willingly, knowingly, make all the social magic happen, our bodies play a much larger role than we give them credit for. Non-verbal communication is known to convey a huge wealth of information, often right under the noses of those engaged in conversation. But a new paper shows that paraverbal information also comes to flesh out our social interactions — again, without us even being aware.

Pitching in

A team of psychologists from the University of Stirling wanted to see how perceived social status alters pitch, one of the main elements of paraverbal communication. So they had a group of 48 students, 24 male and 24 female, take a simulated job interview.

The interview was taken with a series of 3 virtual employers. The team started with series of 28 virtual male interlocutors designed by another group of students from written descriptions before the study. Dominants were described as “approximately 36–45 year old, […] extremely dominant individual” who “likes to be in control and to get their way. They will use force, coercion, and intimidation to achieve their goals if necessary.” Prestigious individuals were described as “approximately 36–45 year old, male […] highly valued, prestigious and influential” with “many valued skills and qualities and others follow him freely. This ultimately leads to his achieving his goals.”

To get a feel for how close to their mark the designers were, a third group of 69 undergrads was asked to rate the faces on a 1 (low dominance/prestige) to 7 (high dominance/prestige) scale. The highest-scoring face for dominance and for prestige were used, as well as the face which received median marks for both traits (as a control/neutral employer.)

During the mock interview, students responded to introductory, personal, and interpersonal interview questions. Overall, they tended to speak with higher-pitched voices when talking with employers who they perceived were of higher social status than them, the team reports. This happened regardless of the way the students felt about their own social status — all that was needed was for them to perceive the employer as being of higher status — for male and female students alike.

In contrast, they tended to lower the pitch of their voice most in response to the more complex or interpersonal questions, such as when explaining a conflict situation to an employer.

The team believes this happens since low-pitched voices sound more dominant (particularly in men) while lower pitches sound relatively submissive — which may be your body’s way of saying “don’t worry I’m not here to stir trouble.”

“So, if someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant than them, they raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submissiveness, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations,” explains Dr Viktoria Mileva, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Stirling and co-author to the paper

“These changes in our speech may be conscious or unconscious but voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status. We found both men and women alter their pitch in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious.”

Further supporting this theory, the team also found that participants who perceive themselves as dominant — those who use methods like manipulation, coercion, or intimidation to acquire social status — were less likely to change to a higher pitch when speaking with someone of a higher social status.

The findings show how deeply embedded subconscious communication is in every type of human interaction, and how our perceived place in society governs how we act in relation to our peers. The effects seen in this study might hold true for other settings in which there’s a perceived social status difference between the two interlocutors, such as in school or when settling a dispute.

“Understanding what these signals are, and what their effects are, will help us comprehend an essential part of human behaviour,” Dr Mileva adds.

The paper “Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker’s vocal characteristics” was published in the journal PLOS One.


Even ‘dumb AI’ can supercharge human activity and efficiency, study reprots

Artificial intelligence doesn’t need to rival our own to have an impact on people’s lives — even “dumb AI” can help humans out, a Yale University study shows.


Image credits Jelene Morris / Flickr.

A lot of the talk regarding AI today revolves around the idea of it substituting or even surpassing our level of intelligence. But right now, as AI is making the first unsteady steps towards reality, that debate isn’t really reflected by the real world. AI is just not there yet.

So with that in mind, can AI’s with significantly lower capacity than our brains help complement human activity? A team led by Nicholas Christakis, a professor of sociology, ecology & evolutionary biology, biomedical engineering, and medicine at Yale, co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science (YINS) and senior author of the study, took to the realm of video games to find out.

The researchers used an online co-operative game — which required groups of people to work together towards a collective goal — as part of an experiment to find out. In a game, the 4000 participants they recruited for the study were joined by a host of bots, programmed to act according to three levels of behavioral randomness. This meant that the AI’s sometimes deliberately made a ‘mistake’ in the context of the game, and they would do this more or less often according to their programming.

The game they played is called breadboard and was developed at Yale. Breadboard is “a networked color coordination game”, in which the players are embedded into 20-node networks (230 were used for the study). Groups of 3 bots were sometimes added to a network — these were anonymous (the participants couldn’t discern between a human or an AI player) and usually placed different parts of the social network.

“We mixed people and machines into one system, interacting on a level playing field,” Shirado explained. “We wanted to ask, ‘Can you program the bots in simple ways?’ and does that help human performance?”

Bot me up!

The team reports that not only did the bots boost the overall performance of the human players, but those who were placed in central location “meaningfully improved the collective performance of human groups”, reducing the mean time for solving problems by 55.6%. Furthermore, this effect became more pronounced as the tasks became more difficult.

It’s not only the bots’ good plays which offered a boost to the network — even their errors helped.

“Behavioural randomness worked not only by making the task of humans to whom the bots were connected easier, but also by affecting the gameplay of the humans among themselves and hence creating further cascades of benefit in global coordination in these heterogeneous systems,” the paper notes.

So, in other words, the bots started a domino effect inside their networks. Their activity made the game easier for human players, who in turn could do the same for even more players, driving overall efficiency up. The AIs, although designed to be a sub-par player compared to a human on its own could, in a sense, help the players help themselves.

Understanding the dynamic inside AI-human groups could help shape how we think about the technology in a wide variety of scenarios, the team says. For example, it’s possible that human and machine drivers will share the road for some time in the future, and understanding how the two interact could help design AIs which would react more intuitively for drivers. Tandem military AI-human applications could also benefit from the findings, as could online environments for human-AI interaction.

The full paper “Locally noisy autonomous agents improve global human coordination in network experiments” has been published in the journal Nature.

Emotional computers really freak people out — a new take on the uncanny valley

New research shows that AIs we perceive as too mentally human-like can unnerve us even if their appearance isn’t human, furthering our understanding of the ‘uncanny valley’ and potentially directing future work into human-computer interactions.

Image credits kuloser / Pixabay.

Back in the 1970s, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori advanced the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ — the idea that humans will appreciate robots and animations more and more as they become more human-like in appearance, but find them unsettling as they become almost-but-not-quite-human. In other words, we know how a human should look, and a machine that ticks some of the criteria but not all is too close for comfort.

The uncanny valley of the mind

That’s all well and good for appearance — but what about the mind? To find out, Jan-Philipp Stein and Peter Ohler, psychologists at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, had 92 participants observe a short conversation between two virtual avatars, one male and one female, in a virtual plaza. These characters talked about their exhaustion from the hot weather, after which the woman told about her frustration at the lack of free time and annoyance for waiting on a friend who’s late, then the man expressed his sympathy for her plight. Pretty straightforward small talk.

The trick was that while everyone witnessed the same scene and dialogue, the participants were given one of four context stories. Half were told that the avatars were controlled by computers, and the other half that they were human-controlled. Furthermore, half of the group was told that the dialogue was scripted and the others that it was spontaneous, in such a way that each context story was fed to one quarter of the group.

Out of all the participants, those who were told that they’d be witnessing two computers interact on their own reported the scene as more eerie and unsettling that the other three groups. People were ok with humans or script-driven computers exhibiting natural-looking social behavior, but when a computer showed frustration or sympathy on its own it put people on edge, the team reports.

Given that the team managed to elicit this response in their participants only through the concept they presented, they call this phenomenon the ‘uncanny valley of the mind,’ to distinguish between the effects of a robot’s perceived appearance and personality on humans, noting that emotional behavior can seem uncanny on its own.

In our own image

Image credits skeeze / Pixabay.

The main takeaway from the study is that people may not be as comfortable with computers or robots displaying social skills as they think they are. It’s all fine and dandy if you ask Alexa about the CIA and she answers/shuts down, but expressing frustration that you keep asking her that question might be too human for comfort. And with social interactions, the effect may be even more pronounced that with appearance alone — because appearance is obvious, but you’re never sure exactly how human-like the computer’s programming is.

Stein believes the volunteers who were told they were watching two spontaneous computers interact were unsettled because they may have felt their human uniqueness was under threat. That if computers can emulate us, what’s stopping them from taking control over our own technology? In future research, he plans to test if this effect of the uncanny valley of the mind can be mitigated when people feel they have control over the human-like agents’ behavior.

So are human-like bots destined to fail? Not necessarily — people may feel like the situation was creepy because they were only witnessing it. It’s like having a conversation with Cleverbot, only a cleverer one. A Clever2bot, if you will. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but once you close the conversation and rummage it over you just feel like something was off with the talk.

By interacting directly with the social bots, humans may actually find the experience pleasant, thus reducing its creepy factor.

The full paper “Feeling robots and human zombies: Mind perception and the uncanny valley” has been published in the journal Cognition.


The light in a glass fiber is coupled to a bottle resonator. (Photo Credit: TU Wien)

Scientists coax Two Photons to interact in Ultra-thin Fiber Glass

Austrian researchers at the Vienna Univ. of Technology (TU Wien) made just two photons interact with each other, a major feat that might have profound implications for quantum technology applications – computing, information teleportation and security.

Two photons, one interaction

These latest developments could prove to be essential to quantum applications, like a quantum network that allows for instant and secure transmission of information. Credit: The Connectivist

These latest developments could prove to be essential to quantum applications, like a quantum network that allows for instant and secure transmission of information. Credit: The Connectivist

In a free medium, light waves – and consequently photons – do not interact between each other. Sometimes this interaction is desirable, and in 1936 H. Euler demonstrated that a photo-photon interaction is possible in a quantum electrodynamics frame, yet this is visible only at high energies in set-ups that makes us of particle accelerators. Optically, photons can be coaxed to interact in a “non-linear” medium, where high intensity beams of light are released in vacuum. The light has an effect on the properties of these materials, and the material in turn influences the light, which leads to an indirect coupling between photons. Because of the high intensity, countless photons are present. The latest developments in Vienna, however, demonstrate an unprecedented degree of control and resolution: only two photons were manipulated to interact with one another. Theoretically, this means that a slew of quantum applications are now possible!

The light in a glass fiber is coupled to a bottle resonator.  (Photo Credit: TU Wien)

The light in a glass fiber is coupled to a bottle resonator.
(Photo Credit: TU Wien)

The researchers made use of a nifty trick to coax the two photons to interact. In fact, the interactions is so strong that the phase of the photons is changed by 180 degrees.

“It is like a pendulum, which should actually swing to the left, but due to coupling with a second pendulum, it swings to the right. There cannot be a more extreme change in the pendulum’s oscillation”, says Professor Arno Rauschenbeutel (Institute for Atomic and Subatomic Physics, TU Wien). “We achieve the strongest possible interaction with the smallest possible intensity of light.”

The system employed at TU Wien is largely made up of an ultra-thin glass fibre, coupled to a tiny bottle-like light resonator so that light can partly enter the resonator, move in circles and return to the glass fibre. This detour is what causes the photon’s phase to become inverted, but when a single rubidium atom is coupled to the resonator we’re in for an unexpected turn. Because of the rubidium atom, hardly any light enters the resonator, until two photons arrive at the same time.

[ALSO SEE] Quantum leap: bits of light successfully teleported

“The atom is an absorber which can be saturated”, says Arno Rauschenbeutel. “A photon is absorbed by the atom for a short while and then released into the resonator. During that time, it cannot absorb any other photons. If two photons arrive simultaneously, only one can be absorbed, while the other can still be phase shifted.”

Glass fiber for the quantum highway of the future!

Light runs around a bottle-shaped glass fiber, about half as thick as a human hair.  (Photo Credit: TU Wien)

Light runs around a bottle-shaped glass fiber, about half as thick as a human hair.
(Photo Credit: TU Wien)

What’s pretty funny (hey, quantum mechanics!) is that there’s no distinction between the photons. There’s absolutely no way to tell which of the two photons is getting absorbed and which is released. When both hit the resonator at the same time, both of them together experience a phase shift by 180 degrees. Two interacting photons arriving simultaneously show a completely different behaviour than single photons, according to the paper Nature Photonics.

[INTERESTING] First-ever working quantum network lays foundation for the future’s quantum internet

“That way, a maximally entangled photon state can be created”, says Arno Rauschenbeutel. “Such states are required in all fields of quantum optics – in quantum teleportation, or for light-transistors which could potentially be used for quantum computing.”

While this may sound like a big deal (it really is), the tech involved is rather rudimentary. Fiber glass has been used for decades and nowadays there are hundreds of thousands of miles worth of fiber optic installed all over the world to serve your internet needs. Nano glass fibres and bottle-resonators are perfectly compatible with existing technologies, as well, so we already have the logistics at our disposal to install the network of the future – a super-secure and super-fast (instant, as in teleportation) quantum network. We just need to work out a few tidbits … like the physics behind. Trust me, that’s no easy task. Get ready for the future, until then.

Facebook profile shows your true personality

facebookFacebook has already caused a major revolution in the way people regard social interaction, but really not much has been said about what your Facebook profile can say about you. It would seem obvious that people make their profiles to portray an idealized version of themselves, augmenting the parts they want augmented and eliminating the flaws. However, scientists were surprised that things aren’t this way at all.

“I was surprised by the findings because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves,” says psychologist Sam Gosling at The University of Texas at Austin of the more than 700 million people worldwide who have online profiles. “In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren’t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.”

“These findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners,” he adds, “but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone.”

The team analyzed 236 profiles of people aged somewhere around 20-25 years old from the United States and Germany. In the study, observers were asked to try and rate people by their profiles, and then compared the results to the true personalities of the subjects, who were asked to fill a questionnaire about their actual personality and their desired ideal personality. The traits included extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness.

The results were surprisingly accurate; the trait with the biggest accuracy was extraversion and the lowes was neuroticism.

“I think that being able to express personality accurately contributes to the popularity of online social networks in two ways,” says Gosling. “First, it allows profile owners to let others know who they are and, in doing so, satisfies a basic need to be known by others. Second, it means that profile viewers feel they can trust the information they glean from online social network profiles, building their confidence in the system as a whole.”

Social media require ‘Community Relations 2.0’

Imagine an average day in your life; the odds are, it’ll include either logging onto facebook, tweeting, browsing some pics on flickr and videos on youtube, or some of these combined. The blazing speed at which social media is developing is catching many off guard and forcing numerous persons and firms (even corporations) to adapt. However, when it comes to firms, many are dragging their feet, at least according to the November issue of Harvard Business Review.


No longer are we living the days when the corporations (even the big ones) can survive merely on the strict rigid way of thinking they’ve embraced for so long. Today, a satisfied client can draw 10 more, while an unsatisfied one can take away thousands. Social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube (and more) along with the blogosphere have exponentially increased the speed at which information is transmitted, and they’ve also magnified it hundreds of times (or even more).

“These new social media tools let people organize extremely quickly around any issue or event that inspires them,” said co-author Kane, an assistant professor of information systems at BC. “Within hours, these virtual communities can grow to hundreds of thousands, potentially reaching millions more in short order. Companies and organizations caught unprepared can find themselves in a media firestorm, just ask companies like Domino’s Pizza, Amazon.com, Comcast, and many others have.”

“Whether or not managers, leaders, or politicians even know the difference between Wikipedia, Facebook, or Twitter, they need to begin learning how to monitor and respond quickly to trends in these social media communities,” Kane said. “Doing so, they may not only prevent the spread of damaging information, but they may also find valuable partners in their organization’s mission. Companies like Dell, Starbucks and Kaiser-Permanente have moved beyond purely reactive strategies to proactively reach out to customers as an important resource for customer service, marketing, and new product development.”

Now, this scientific research has only pinpointed what good marketers have been knowing and applying for years now. The way society interacts has changed, and it affects all our lives, even if we don’t use social media. Whether we like it or not, this is a different era; but the good thing is, more power is brought to the people.